Why do we do the things we do?

Nearly ten years ago, Ron Keith collared me at the local train show. What a wonderful gentleman he was, with his grey handlebar moustache and his enigmatic smile. I was happy to bask in his genial company once again.

However, this time Ron had no time for small talk: “Rene, I’ve been looking all over for you,” he said. “I have a plow that I’d like to give to you. But, you’ll have to come visit me to pick it up. You’d better come quick, because I have a brain tumor and the doctors don’t expect me to make it to Christmas.”

It was Remembrance Day weekend, and the stores had already filled with lights and trees and muzak carols. So, as soon as I’d recovered from the shock, I made an appointment to visit the next weekend.

Ron had spent a lifetime collecting and building trains. His modest layout was crowded not only with his own models, but with those of friends he had met through the hobby. And of course, the walls were lined with shelves on which he displayed more than 300 plows he had built over his modelling career.

After touring the layout, we peeked in at his workshop upstairs where he had two or three more plows under construction. Now, Ron did all his painting outdoors in the fine weather, and so he had started these models knowing he would never finish them. I will never forget the question in his eye when he turned to me and asked, “Why do we do the things we do?”

“Why do we do the things we do?” It’s a question that has haunted me ever since, but thanks to some of the responses to my recent post about scratchbuilding, maybe I can begin to answer it, at least in the context of model railroading. It breaks down to intrinsic and extrinsic satisfaction.

Some modelling is inherently satisfying – the feel of a knife in your hand as it slices through material, the perfection of parts as they slide together, that coat of paint atomized and deposited as smooth as silk. Sometimes we undertake modelling for the challenge, much like an athlete who strives to beat their best time; we feel satisfied when we complete the challenge. This is the intrinsic satisfaction of our craft.

But it can’t be merely about the craft, for why do we continue to strive for ever more accuracy in our models? Why do we invent new techniques? Why is mediocrity insufficient?

I was only ten when my grandfather, a CNR man, died of a heart attack in Montreal traffic. His memory smells of sawdust and Players unfiltered; it sounds like a deep gravelly bark, and is always lit in golden Kodachrome firelight. Despite my youth when he died, I keenly recall of him that we should seek to leave our thumbprints on the universe.

It’s a demanding life philosophy, but it explains why some of us must express our ideas – whether those ideas are about our personal feelings and experiences with trains, about the invention of techniques or about building camaraderie through this shared interest. Those who come into contact with our ideas are themselves shaped by them and carry them forward into the universe. By expressing our ideas through excellent, accurate models, we gain the attention that engages others and makes our ideas memorable. Mediocre models, like mediocre movies and mediocre meals are soon forgotten and have little impact. That is the extrinsic satisfaction of our hobby: to be recognized and if not remembered then felt after we are gone.

Why do we do the things we do? We do them to give permanence to our short time on this planet. For one day nobody will recall how we smelled, but the ideas, feelings and experiences we shared will be the bedrock for their own ideas, feelings and experiences.

4 thoughts on “Why do we do the things we do?

  1. Hi Rene,

    Touching story. I have not had the misfortune to lose one of my model railroad friends, but have thought about that prospect a lot since the pandemic. I think for a lot of us the pandemic has helped us focus, (at least it has for me). Do I want to meander through life like I’m meandering through this unfinished layout? Or do I want to accomplish something?

    I often ask myself why I am model railroading, and if I’m overindulging in the hobby at the expense of my family. I think ultimately it’s the pursuit of figuring something out. And the chance to escape into my own world.


  2. This is beautiful to read through. I believe that our energy is invested into those things we create and passed on to others when we share our work with them. This felt so good to read and you’ve done such a beautiful job of describing why and what this can all mean. Thank you. Our hobby deserves more beautiful writing like this and it is made so much richer for it.


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