Dreams of Railways

June 8, 2013

This evening I watched a Japanese movie called Railways, a warm drama about a middle-aged corporate exec who gives up his lucrative Tokyo job to become the driver of a local train along the west coast of Honshu. Driving a train had been his dream when he was a kid, and it hit him after the unexpected death of a close friend that life changes could be abrupt and permanent, and if he wanted to realize his dream, there was no time like the present to be about it. So, at age 49, he applies for the job, and against long odds, he gets it. There is no happy Hollywood happy ending here, though; there will be laughter, sadness, intimacy, poignant moments and profound changes in the courses of relationships—in short, all of the things we expect from real life, whether we are pursuing our dreams or not.

Anyway, Railways got me to thinking about the nature of childhood dreams, and the practicalities (and impracticalities) of living them out in our later lives. Obviously, if we all did this, we would be a nation of cowboys, actors, firemen, astronauts, rock stars, and football
players, so I suppose it makes sense to temper our dreams to some degree. If at least some of us didn’t, how would positions like insurance underwriter, assembly line worker, used car salesman, drive-up window attendant, trash collector, middle manager and department store clerk ever get filled? I know in my heart of hearts that there was never, anywhere, anytime, a kid who dreamed of someday becoming a middle manager or an insurance adjuster.

My mother’s take on this was that I should learn to use a typewriter early on, pointing out that if things ever got really tough, I could always eke out a living as a typist. I read in Wikipedia that Leonard Nimoy’s dad, in a similar vein, wanted his son to learn the accordion—on the theory that a good accordion player would never find himself unemployed. I think Nimoy’s father and my mother, like a lot of people who grew up in periods of wartime privation, were exceptionally concerned about having a Plan-B, a fallback position, and thus more willing to sacrifice some measure of the dream to avoid having to suffer any part of the nightmare.

From the time I was a little kid, what I wanted most was to be on the move, to travel to the places I read about in the pages of National Geographic, which I devoured immediately upon its arrival each month. Later on, I wanted to write stuff: fiction; short stories; essays; book reports; you name it. Fast forward a bunch more years, and I am still traveling incessantly and writing about it. You could make a case for this falling into the category of “living the dream”, or if you were meaner of spirit, you might call it a midlife crisis gone seriously awry, a Peter Pan story about a kid who doesn’t want to grow up. There is some measure of truth to either of these assertions, and I can live with that.

The one part of it I hadn’t counted on was that each time I leave someplace to go someplace else, there is the deep sadness that comes of parting with people I love. And because I love people in such far-flung corners of the earth as Guatemala, Thailand, Cambodia, Poland, Japan, Canada, and the US (to name but a few such places), at any given time I am in the company of a small number of the people I care about, and far apart from many more of them. Because of this I am truly grateful for facebook, Skype, and other internet resources that allow us to stay in touch until the next time we can touch in person.