Illusions, Riddles, & Toys Page 4

One thing I didn't find was the internecine bickering that plagues the hi-fi world. In my few evenings of perusing railroad-buff journals, it looked to me like steam-engine fanciers, their diesel-loving counterparts, and the myriad sects devoted to differing scales accorded each other quite a bit of mutual respect---considerably more than we see in the ongoing analog vs digital, tubes vs transistors, single-ended vs push-pull, two-channel vs surround-sound, high-end vs Home Theater, and subjective vs objective controversies. Of course, I was barely scratching the surface, and probably didn't notice the infighting which is almost certain to occur wherever and whenever people organize around a common interest.

There are many similarities between the two hobbies. The acquisition and sharing of arcana is one, as is the fanatic attention to detail. Pride of ownership is another. And there are differences, the most obvious being that model railroading is very much a hands-on, skilled-craftsman activity, like audio was when hobbyists built most of their own equipment.

But the overwhelming similarity is the emphasis on realism. This theme flows like a river through the pages of model-railroading publications, in features and advertising, just as it does through the pages of Stereophile: "incredibly realistic," "true to life," "a realism unmatched by anything in its price range," "lifelike in every detail," "enhanced sense of realism"---and my favorite, "indistinguishable from the original," describing an expensive, all-metal, limited-production locomotive that can be held in the palm of the hand. No serious model railroader would ever think of assembling a cartoon train packed with clowns. Not even as a joke.

I went to a meeting of the Model Railroad Society with Michael and his son Zach. There was a discussion of the merger of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads, an announcement about a special train of privately owned luxury railcars making a slow excursion from Los Angeles to Calgary, and a presentation by one of the members about modifying model locomotives to make them more realistic. He went into excruciating detail describing techniques for removing tiny molded plastic handrails and hoses and replacing them with metal and rubber, applying and curing decals so they look like paint, weighting engines and cars for more realistic motion, and painting and aging for that "real working train" look. Many hours of work go into each car in an authentic-looking model train. Some of this modeler's efforts were on display, and I must admit: they looked exactly like the real things. As I stood staring at them I tried to project myself down in size and pretend that I was a half-inch high and looking up. The believability was good enough to make me want to do that.

My curiosity was tweaked. The next time the rail club put on one of their public exhibitions, I showed up. If grown men in engineer's caps presiding over a half-acre of toy trains strikes you as silly, I must rise to their defense and say they are no more silly than grown men littering their listening rooms with metallized candies and small wooden discs in the faith that "it will sound better." At least the railroad buffs have friends with whom to share their fantasies. I watched in fascination as little freight trains chugged across ersatz plains and up steep mountain grades. Goods were loaded at one Lilliputian town and unloaded at the next. Lumber and steel, cattle and coal, commodities that made this nation great, were shuffled and traded and shuffled again, all in miniature, by big men with the imaginations of small boys.

When they were done with the hard work of making it as realistic as it could be, they relaxed, sat back, and played. It seemed extremely therapeutic. These guys, like audiophiles, have sunk many hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into their hobby. They take it all very seriously, but still possess the childlike capacity for unabashed play. It's a wonderful thing to see. The ability to pretend is a rare enough quality in adults, but it's absolutely necessary for the full enjoyment of many artforms---novels, plays, movies, and music. It's something I fear we audiophiles are losing in our relentlessly critical pursuit of "realism."

It's known as the willing suspension of disbelief---the psychological trick that enables us to sit through an episode of Star Trek without complaining that Jordi, Worf, and Data can't really beam up. It's what allows us to accept, for entertainment's sake, that James Bond can brush the dust off his jacket and walk away from an explosion that blows the doors off his car. It's what lets us imagine that we really own and control the Burlington Northern. It's what lets Vladimir Horowitz and Emmylou Harris come into our listening rooms.

Learn when to say "enough." Be critical in the service of deeper musical enjoyment, not in the service of a manufactured compulsion. Listen hard, then let go and listen easy. Play the air guitar. Sing along with Pavarotti. Conduct your phantom orchestra. Open your heart to the music. That's when the magic happens.