SXSW by way of the Texas Eagle

1950′s ticket for the Texas Eagle

It takes twenty-eight hours to travel between Chicago and Austin aboard the Texas Eagle, and in that time, I fell in love. With train travel in the United States, that is. The gentle rocking, the horn steadily blaring through the night, the rushing countryside and quick peek at cities and towns, the extended leg room, the atmosphere conducive to writing, the delicious food and trading stories with passengers: these experiences are unlike any I’ve had on a plane, car or bus. Factor in the historical significance, and I have to wonder why I previously dismissed commuting long distance by rail in North America.

I didn’t think I was going to make it to SXSW last week — I was originally planning on road-tripping with my mate but he pulled out at the last minute — and the train became the solution to my logistical problem for a fourth the price of airfare. (Reason #1 to take the train to SXSW : the price!)  I quickly became charmed by the idea of using a culturally significant technology hundreds of years old — older than the car or plane — to get to a festival devoted to celebrating new technology.

Springfield, Ill. seen from the train

My Amtrak ticket was purchased on Wednesday night (by my mate), I boarded the Texas Eagle Thursday afternoon and arrived in Austin 6:30pm on Friday.  Along the way, I watched the snowy landscape change to Southern brush, and rode through 25 cities and countless towns, urban areas that literally built themselves around the railroad tracks that pass through them.

Reason #2 to take the train to SXSW : the history! 

A hundred years ago, the Texas Eagle was actually called the Sunshine Special until it was renamed in 1948 by the Missouri Pacific Railroad (MoPac), one of the first railroads west of the Mississippi. Spurred by the California gold rush, MoPac began officially in 1851 with a five mile track between St Louis and Cheltenham City, a project that took a year to complete. Expansions continued despite interruptions caused by the Civil War. By the late 1870′s MoPac was taken over by railroad developer Jay Gould, who in 1880 connected it to the Texas and Pacific Railway, allowing passengers to commute from St. Louis to Dallas (see this 1903 MoPac railway map). Around the same time, Gould acquired control of the rail lines operating from Chicago to St Louis, allowing passengers to commute from Chicago, Illinois all the way down to San Antonio, Texas all before the 1900′s.

Dining car on the Texas Eagle, circa the 1950′s

The Missouri Pacific Railroad is no more, and there is nothing on the current Texas Eagle to indicate its rich history, except for its name and the rail road the train operates on. The tracks have long been replaced and so have the train cars. Even the 1950′s Dining cars, a missed opportunity given Mad Men’s popularity, if you ask me.

Speaking of eating on the train, I am not kidding about the food being delicious.

Reason #3 to take the train to SXSW: the food! 

Amtrak actually employs chefs to make their food, and it shows. Here is their menu. If you travel in a roomette (small room with a bed), your meals are included. I was Coach, which means they were not.

On both evenings, I ordered the Amtrak Signature Steak (medium rare) and everything about it was juicy and fantastic. The mashed potatoes perfectly seasoned. The cheesecake was …. just all right, but still better than airplane food.

Texas Eagle menu cover, 2014

I also ordered a glass of red wine the first night, a half bottle of wine the second. Total price for this dinner meal is comparable to a fancy restaurant ($45) but for those looking for something cheaper, the snack bar offers microwave-able sandwiches and food items. I opted to get a full meal from the Dining car, because how often do you get a well-cooked meal on a train? (For breakfast on the return trip, I ordered the Classic Railroad French Toast, which again, did not disappoint.)

If you want the whole train shebang and have the means, you really need to have a meal in the Dining car. It is an experience: unless you are traveling in a group of four, the dining staff will seat you with strangers at a booth. If you haven’t already struck up a conversation with strangers sitting in the Lounge or Observation car (or near you in Coach), you most definitely will in the Dining car.

Reason #4 to take the train to SXSW: the people! 

On the way back to Chicago, I was seated with an elderly couple clad in cowboy hats, the wife the chatty one, the husband the quiet nodding and smiling type. We were joined by a mid-30′s male who upon seating, the wife in a cowboy hat insisted he introduce himself as that was the way things were done around here.  The wait staff nodded, because, yes that was indeed the way of the train. The Dining car is just as much for eating as it is for conversation. And some of those conversations may lead to genuine friendship. No promises, but it happened to me.

That first night on the Texas Eagle, I hung out with the three people the dining car attendees sat me with, including a man that filled a large Dasani water bottle with vodka. He shared this with me and another woman from our dining table, a woman named Angie I now text because we became actual friends after getting wasted together (I’d share the picture of her I took for my phone contact info here, but no, because privacy.)  Angie endeared me to her immediately by also wearing sweatpants and a baggy t-shirt, and I joked it’s the best “leave me alone/don’t hit on me” outfit. The  three of us spent hours talking in the Observation car — they teased me over taking too long to transcribe a 30-minute interview — and we shared stories about our jobs, families and various life experiences. By 2AM, we were joined by a woman who couldn’t sleep and a man with neck tattoos who had 5 children with 3 different women. He’s a busy man, in more ways than one.

My daytime Coach seat mate on the way to Austin I dubbed my “travel mom,” and  she gifted me some ibuprofen for my Dasani hang-over. She complimented my cellphone photograph of the state capital building in Springfield (above), and vowed to take one with similar composition on her way back. She was very proud of her son, a master welder, who she was going to visit in Iowa.

one of many “art for assholes” SXSW pics

En route to Chicago, I sat next to  another senior citizen, a Native American named Thundering Waters traveling to meet his brother for their annual fishing trip.  He had good taste in turquoise rings (of which he wore many) and told me of the dream that named him. I shared my similar dream achieved also through days of fasting and dehydration (but not intentional) from that time I was in India last year. Thundering Waters and I bonded over anger at Andrew Jackson still being on the $20 dollar bill, the middle finger that is Mount Rushmore and his discomfort of young predominantly white hipsters appropriating Native American imagery for their art, clothing and jewelry. I showed him pictures I took at SXSW of what I like to affectionately call “art for assholes” and he shared images of his website-less friend Richard Branson (not the British investor) whose two painting –one of a group of crows, the other of a medicine man — I’m still thinking about days later.

Thundering Waters also helped identify the name of the black and white birds of prey I kept seeing. They would fly in groups above the Texan landscape and could either be the  the zone-tailed hawk, the turkey vulture, or the Mexican eagle known as the Caracara.

Which brings me to reason #5 to take the train to SXSW: the sightseeing!

View from the Observation car

 True, the landscape from Chicago to Austin is flat and full of woodlands but staring out the window still yields exciting results. Or maybe I am easy to please. Besides the birds of prey in Texas, red-tailed hawks hung out on stumps and trees by the tracks. I spotted a large group of deer in the woods. Once you got further south, especially Texas, there are herds of cattle, sheep, goats and horses chilling out on ranches. As for architecture, the Texas Eagle route is a crash course in middle and southern American cities (including St Louis and Dallas) and towns. Smaller skyscrapers the shape of diamonds, St Louis’ Gateway Arch, bridges that looked like modern art, young males skate-boarding in a makeshift skate park, graffiti: there was always something to see.  Some of the smaller towns we passed in Texas were caricatures of themselves, resembling movie sets on a Western feature enough that I questioned if this was indeed real life and not a dream. The poverty that stretched along the rail road was also a bit shocking, especially the condition of houses seen in state capital cities like Springfield, Illinois or in Texas near new condo developments.  (Here’s a PDF with quick factoids of the towns and cities on the route, one I wish I read before embarking)

Reason #6 to take the train: the time for contemplation, reading, writing

Amtrak announced their writer’s residency program this month after a writer tweeted about it, prompting CNN to ask “who knew so many writers did their best work on trains?” I didn’t know this, but after riding on one for more than a day, I totally buy it. I managed some writing for my own book (more than five years in the making now, oh god why is not finished yet) and got some work done besides transcribing an old interview. Alexander Chee told  CNN about his own residency and experiences, “there’s a mix of anonymity and rootlessness to being on a train that makes you feel you could be anyone, anywhere — which turns out to be excellent ground for writing fiction.” I wouldn’t describe it in this way as I haven’t written fiction in a while, I’d say in my case it’s more the partial isolation of the train is friendly enough to help you focus and decompress, but not enough to make you bored, tired or lonely.  The Texas Eagle doesn’t have wifi access, so perhaps that also helps to disconnect.

view of the setting sun from my Coach seat

The major con!

Sleeping in Coach is not that comfortable, even if you’re drunk. Sure, it’s more comfortable than sleeping on a plane or on a bus – the seats lean back and a bottom portion of the seat comes up underneath your legs to make a semi-bed — but you’re still not going to get a good night’s rest.  Even if you end up getting two seats for yourself, like every overnight rider (myself included) did, it’s still not the same as sleeping in an actual bed. Next time I do a day-plus train trip , I’ll be sure to bring a pillow. Or if I go with my mate, we’d get a sleeper (because sex on a train).  Folks in First Class (aka sleepers, roomettes) also get access to a shower.

If I go back to SXSW next year, I will definitely travel by train. Maybe I can convince fellow Chicagoans heading to Austin to ride with me, and it could turn into some community-oriented fun time like the recent Indie Train Jam. We could  talk about everything we’ve learned and heard at the conference and festival, the people we met and the things we saw, or catch up on our writing.

Consider this post a toast to two awesome train rides between Chicago and Austin and to future rides with friends both new and old.

wine


Go back to 4chan, Trolls, because Twitter will never accept you

trollocaust horsemen

The Trollocaust and Feminazi Twitter Drama Explained in Context

Twitter is this unique social space that brings vastly different (and sometimes insular) Internet cultures together, and when this happens, the culture clash creates crazy Internet drama like yesterday’s “trollocaust,” dubbed so by the trolls, hackers and Anonymous-affiliates who felt they were under attack by “feminazis” hellbent on muffling their freedom of expression. Neither group has any business with the other, but here they are, operating on the same platform and pissing each other off. Maybe it’s time they went their separate ways. They don’t understand each other anyway. One’s harassment is another member’s way of showing love.

On Monday, dark web counter culture folk who follow rules and etiquette birthed from places like 4chan, Something Awful and Usenet found themselves at the mercy of older women who did not grow up with the Internet and viewed their obnoxious 4chan ways as if they were a foreign language. More than 45 accounts of people associated with Anonymous and activists were suspended as a result of this clash. The feminists lost only one, the twitter account for a blocking app used by feminists and atheists. The suspensions began after four women reported harassment, sadly still a common occurrence across most of the Internet, to Twitter.

If a woman (or a man) was being harassed, including with death and rape threats, on 4chan or a place operating under similar rules, the way to get the abuse to stop would be to come up with a witty retort preferably from the weird Internet society handbook of inside jokes and circle-jerkery. This witty retort can also be an offensive remark meant to disgust and upset the abuser, like making light of the Holocaust, questioning the abusers sexual orientation, gender, religion, whatever will upset the abuser to admit defeat. Besting the abuser in argument intellectually works as well, but a weak comeback can and will result in more abuse. One does not make controversial or unpopular statements in a 4chan-like place without the power of their convictions, and the last thing one wants to do is to lose their cool, get mad and contact the moderators or Internet police. Saying you will do so is taken as a sign you want and or need more harassment. New users in these web communities are generally hazed with abuse to ensure they can handle the madness that is the community, and are expected to speak in this coded way if they want to stay a part of the community. This code includes racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, homophobic and over the top offensive language and jokes despite many in the community being black, homosexual, feminist and Jewish.

Twitter is different. Twitter is not 4chan or the deep web, and will never be 4chan and the deep web– Twitter even has rules and tools in place to prevent it from being so, like the block button that eliminates the need for the person being harassed to best the harasser in any sort of argumentative exchange. A woman, especially an older woman, is not on Twitter to get into a face-off of “who is more offensive” or to find out who has a more logically sound argument, nor does she have time for such juvenile games. She uses Twitter for a completely different reason than the young male that frequents 4chan. To her, the slur “feminazi” is offensive, misogynistic and reminiscent of Rush Limbaugh, and a term she does not use ironically or in an attempt to “take it back” like younger feminists on the micro-blogging network. She does not get that she is being tested, because no one gave her the memo. Death threats and words like “trollocaust” are offensive to the woman, nay, most users on Twitter of both genders, because they don’t know they’re supposed to be offended by the term. They did not get this memo either.  People on Twitter are not on the platform to condition themselves to bombastic and offensive statements or take a crash course in how to withstand cyber-bullying. Many of them are genuinely incapable of handling offensive language on a screen and when they see it, they will report it whether or not they understand the context. In the rules dictated in the Twitter space, it is not normal to receive death and rape threats, and people who make such threats are reported to the authorities or in this case, the Twitter police. The Twitter police actually do their jobs in Twitterland, and if they find someone violating their rules, they will suspend said user. These are the rules of Twitter, and by Twitter’s own inclusive nature, are very different from 4chan-like etiquette. 4chan’s 10 year old codex is rebellious, alienating, cultish and strange while Twitter’s is more akin to civil and mainstream society by design. Twitter is its own web place and can do what they want.

Which brings us to the “trollocaust:” the 4chan game cannot be played on Twitter because not everyone knows the rules. Even if all users do know these crazy Internet society rules, they may not want want to play by them, and it is unfair to subject them to the game because outside of the 4chan context the game appears quite rude with players mostly bigots. The game only works if everyone knows they are playing, and since not everyone is playing, everyone loses.

So what’s a troll, Anonymous affiliate or follower of deep web etiquette and humor to do? Go elsewhere, maybe even back to 4chan and Something Awful. Anywhere but Twitter, because Twitter doesn’t want you, and you just lost the game. No one likes a loser.

Or, you know, make your accounts private and communicate however you see fit with your peers.

 


Trivializing Mental Illness!

bad tweet

I just deleted that bad tweet. It was bad because I am trying to have an honest discussion about mental illness and that hashtag trivializes it, so yeah, I do feel bad. I made a shitty rhyme & joke using hashtags, and I apologize! To no one, and everyone.

 


Paris, Reviewed

Paris, Reviewed Header img

Ask me to describe Paris to you, and I’ll balk and try to change the subject.

Despite spending a week there, all I can muster about the city when pressed is … well, there is a river in the middle of it, and the surrounding banks and hills are dotted with pretty buildings. Information you can gather from Wikipedia, or your imagination. Oh, and there’s art in museums and good food in restaurants but you should probably check out Trip Advisor because I don’t remember the name of that fancier hostel I stayed in or the bar I drank at every night. No recommendations from me, buddy, no specifics to give, now move along now please before this gets more awkward.

I try not to bring up I’ve been to Paris in conversation, because my inability to talk intelligently about the city is embarrassing. I want to remedy this situation by going back there and actually paying attention to Paris, the city proper, the second time. The funny thing is, months before my trip I planned to take detailed notes and photos for my mother. The Hungarian nationalists inside us wanted to compare. Budapest, my birth city, is considered the Paris of Eastern Europe and we were curious about its French counterpart. Could Paris in fact be the lesser, the imitator, the Budapest of Western Europe? I accepted my mission to do research for the Motherland wholeheartedly.

My time in Paris was, more or less, hopelessly distracted. Sure, the wine was great, attractions great, cafes and hostels great, all great great great blur. My original goal of studying the city (even its public transportation system!) was scrapped almost immediately and instead, I spent the entire time observing one thing and one thing only: a human male called “M.” Out of the corner of my eye.

I was constantly alert to his presence, my brain obsessed with tracking him. I watched where he walked, analyzed what he wore and who he was talked to and what he took a photo of. When he laughed, all my senses left my body and hovered steps near him like a ghost. Looking at him with both eyes was out of the question.

I had gone to Paris with M and his best friend who very importantly was my just-days-ex, as well as all our friends in college who were very intent (this they made clear) on the ex and I making up on this overseas break. M and I were madly, secretly in love, (I had been for a year), but we feigned disinterest in public; the trip would be more pleasant this way, we agreed while we packed the night before. On top of covertly spying on M, I had to diplomatically refuse and sidestep reconciliation schemes hatched by ex-and-friends. It was an excruciating week. Read the rest of this entry »


How Sexism Plays Out on YouTube

“I want to both have sex with her AND strangle her to death. But in which order…?”

That’s the disturbing question user menace8012 posed recently in the comment section of “I Gotta Feeling,” a Black Eyed Peas parody by YouTube star iJustine, posted originally in July 2009.

The response? A few joking replies and little else. Not a single person objects or scolds the users. No one even clicks the “dislike” button on menace8012’s comment.

The incident is evident of a larger trend on YouTube, where sexist attitudes towards women run unchecked. It’s not just the trolls or haters in the comments section of videos; YouTubers have cyberbullied women based off their appearance since the site’s inception.

Menace8012’s comment, and the community’s response (or lack thereof), may seem extreme to the casual YouTube community safarian, but it also perfectly portrays why so few women have found success on YouTube. Many women on YouTube try to avoid this negative sexist environment by cloistering themselves in the beauty section of YouTube, but that does little to combat the anti-women sentiments running rampant throughout the rest of the site.

Like rape apologist ideology, YouTubers who silently upvote, or in this case “like,” menace8012’s comment are implying iJustine deserves the threats and derogatory comments she gets, daily, because of the way she looks and dresses. Sometimes in her videos, the blonde, blue-eyed and pretty iJustine wears a tank top and lip gloss, and that little bit of sexuality occasionally sends both genders into a sexist frenzy. Read the rest of this entry »


When I was Late on September 11th

me with twin towers

Me at the Statue of Liberty trying to point at the plane flying over the WTC

The train had rocked most of us on this New Brunswick to Penn Station train to sleep but not me; My MP3 CD with 100+ songs burned from Napster had not yet lost its novelty. I was listening to the Cure as a good teen Catholic high school pseudo-goth when a man sitting by the window blurted out, “there’s a fire!”

We were about to go under the tunnel, still on the New Jersey side. When the buildings cleared again before we descended under the river the few people that had gathered peered out but the angle had changed, or the wind picked up. We didn’t see anything. “I saw smoke” said the man. “I really did.” We were unconvinced, and returned to our seats. I focused on the task at hand: filling out a yellow slip and forging the signature of my school’s lobby receptionist.

I was late, really late, and when you were late at my school, you had to check in at the front desk to collect a slip, which you then gave to your teacher. Once you collected three, you got detention. I was late a lot — my parents had moved out to New Brunswick for the birth of my step-brother and I was having trouble catching the 6:20 train every day to get to school on time– which is where the stolen packet of late slips came in. On September 11th, I was on the 8am so I was “missed first period” late.

Riding the 6 train and running the couple of blocks to my school felt odd but I attributed it to rush hour being over. A classmate let me in the side door and I bounded up the stairs, my teacher waving my late slip away not even bothering to sign it. Class was not in session, everyone was talking about the Twin Towers. That man on the train was telling the truth!!! My chemistry teacher burst into the room and ordered everyone into the basement. We were under attack. The Pentagon had just been hit. Read the rest of this entry »


I want to be part of the poetry comeback crew, please

I convinced VICE to publish a gossip column/industry & conference review as a poem yesterday. So yeah, I am serious about this.

Why poetry? Because when it comes to story-telling, it is the most efficient form. Least input, brain fills in the rest. Imagination hacking, if you will. I love making the reader unpack things, toying with words.

A resurgence of mass public interest in poetry coincides with Twitter’s 140 character limit, I have to mention this. There is a certain beauty in brevity when you consider the infinite space on the web… and data caps. (Vine too, if we want to go multimedia with this)

Poetry even looks like programming!

Given the following as precedent, poetry going mainstream is not far fetched: You have Weird Twitter poets, the alt lit crowd, teens writing poetry on Tumblr (more accepted than when I was doing it on deadjournal as a preppy goth, too). Dan Sinker’s expletive-filled Twitter parody of Rahm Emanuel (however unfunny) still got turned into a book deal. Twitter account Shit Girls Say becomes a live web series. And then you have Patricia Lockwood writing an incredibly well-received poem on a personal experience,  titled “Rape Joke” on The Awl. Read the rest of this entry »


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