I was covered in a layer of sweat, and my iPhone charger was dangling out of a bag that contained the after-hours work. I still needed to do along with a Lara bar, crushed under the weight of my laptop.
It should have been obvious: I’d been stressed, and moving way too fast. But, as usual, I didn’t realise it until I was on the train. I poked my head out of my inbox long enough to play peek-a-boo with a toddler clutching her snack, and chat with an older couple en route to vacation.
I felt joy, and a familiar pang of shame that comes from realising you’ve moved too fast to cherish what’s in front of you.
Riding the train is always a reminder of the things I don’t do enough: Sit and talk with strangers. Spend time in a space designated for one thing instead of a multitasking hub designed to be everything all at once. Slow down. While the train is often the fastest way to my destination, it’s also the most leisurely. And these days, leisure can feel like an afterthought.
Amtrak announced in late September that it would halt its dining service on long-distance trains, trading traditional dining cars — the more luxurious version of the cafe car I sat in as I travelled home that harried evening — for “flexible” and “contemporary” dining options.
Riding the train is always a reminder of the things I don’t do enough: Sit and talk with strangers. Spend time in a space designated for one thing instead of a multitasking hub designed to be everything all at once
While the change will only affect certain East Coast one-night routes, it ignited a conversation about all that is lost in an attempt to have more: More privacy instead of sitting next to fellow travellers, more time to do things more productive than waiting for a meal, more quickness and ease.
The desire to “lure a younger generation of riders”, cited as part of the reason for the change, is an example of what feels like a message from society to millennials in particular: We’re going to offer less and expect you to get more out of it.
The suggestion that, as a 26-year-old, I should find meaning in something that’s sparse, impersonal and temporary feels all too familiar. Millennials work more jobs for less money, and have fewer assets and wealth than previous generations did at the same age.
I wonder as I fire off emails for one job on one device, while skimming a document for a second job on another. “I think, as I look around my apartment bedroom, with its efficient closet organisation system and a nightstand purchased from Facebook Marketplace — perfectly practical. Nothing is excessive and everything is purposeful, but it’s a sterile place to exist, where function trumps comfort.
The truth is, I don’t always want this kind of life.
Just like Amtrak citing pre-packaged meals as a chic and contemporary workaround to a prepared meal, the emphasis on ease — on maximising every second — is supposed to be sexy. But it can feel exhausting.
The idea that young people like me are always on the go, always in transition and always masks that we might actually desire slowness, want to relish an experience, or enjoy taking a moment to feel comfortable and human instead of curated and optimised.
Our experiences at work, in our homes and even in transit can be chopped up into pieces of purpose and service. Anything else — any lingering, any humanity — can feel superfluous, or even wasteful, especially for a generation scapegoated as entitled for wanting things that used to be considered basic.
It’s as though doing more (even when we’re doing something as simple and sedentary as riding a train) with less is always the ultimate goal.
It’s not difficult to see why, when an advertisement highlighting convenience and quickness pops up, we believe maybe this really is the thing that will make life better. Maybe this is what “contemporary” looks like. But I wish small things — meals on a train, unplanned moments that can’t be logged as self-improvement or furniture that is owned — didn’t feel old-fashioned.
I wish people knew that my generation wants more than to optimise our lives, or to feel trendy because of how fast we’re hustling. I wish slowing down didn’t feel like a luxury.
— New York Times News Service
Rainesford Stauffer is a blogger and a columnist.