Song of the Day: Railroad Boy by the Magnetic Fields

Me and my girlfriend were driving in the car to go on a hike. I had been listening to The Wayward Bus/Distant Plastic Trees for about a week. I haven’t been driving that much. Some of the songs on the album have really weird lyrics. She wondered out loud what Railroad Boy is about, if anything. I said it sounds like having an autistic kid. Based on the lyrics

I bought you crows and candelabra
And I went moth-eating with you

(Actual lyric “I bought you crows and candelabra”, but I have misinterpreted it for at least 10 years)

“I held you down when you had seizures
And read to you at bedtime
Railroad boy of mine”

It just sounds like doing weird things your autistic child would want to do, plus it’s a stereotype that autistic people are obsessed with trains, and autistic people have seizures and epilepsy at a higher rate than the typical population.

After thinking a little more, I amended to it’s about Stephin Merritt’s childhood from his mom’s point of view. After 50 Song Memoir came out, we have learned a lot more about Stephin’s life. In 92: Weird Diseases, Stephin reveals he has petit mal epilepsy and Asperger’s (“if that exists” since it was removed from the newest edition of the DSM and grouped under ASD). Ever since I started studying to be a Special Ed teacher, I have thought this song was about having a child with ASD.

Stephin Merritt has an amazing imagination. If you will listen to his songs, it is like he has lived every one.

Anyway, the lyric that made me want to choose this as song of the day for this blog is

We went to see a beaver dam
We went to see a coral reef
But life is more than going to see things

It just makes me think of all the early retirement forum posts and blogs where people talk about traveling…about “having experiences instead of things”, “really being alive” and “not wanting to miss out on the important things in life” (the important thing in life is always travel).

How would you feel if you lived your life traveling around, meeting people, even having a few conversations with locals in their own language but yet didn’t have anyone to call and have a heart to heart to, and were uprooted from your community? I’m not making a value judgement here or saying that that’s worse or better. A lot of people live fulfilling lives this way. And a lot of people don’t have a choice about traveling, being separated from their community, or not having any close friends. In another Magnetic Fields song, Sunset City, the narrator prefers it that way, singing

Well I don’t care what people say
Life is too short to hang around
So I stay so long in a place
And then move on to the next town

Oh, Sunset City, I’ve got to see the world
Don’t hold me too tightly
Don’t whisper my name
Sad-eyed baby, I’m not that kind of girl
When the dice stop rolling
There’s no more to the game

Other things that could be important in life:
-Cultivating a relationship with G-d

-Solving an open math problem and contributing to the body of human knowledge

-Making your parents proud

-Passing your culture to the next generation, through having kids or in other ways

-Hanging out with your friends

-Reading, writing, drawing, listening to music, playing music and creative stuff like that

Some people like travel, but it’s not the end all be all for everyone. It just gets on my nerves when people act like it’s the ultimate goal, and also the only way to really get to know the world. I think a lot of 14 year old kids who have a bunch of internet friends know and understand other cultures better than grown adults who are “well traveled” (not just ones who do touristy things…even ones who “do what the locals do”), or adults who know other cultures by having strong relationships coworkers or friends from other cultures, than adults who did “slow travel” and got a taste for a few months.

And think back through history…many people never traveled at all, farther than a few dozen miles from their shetetl or hamlet. Did they live less meaningful lives because they didn’t have access to jet travel?

There are thousands of ways to live life in a meaningful way. And they can also all look good on Instagram if you read 40 articles on photography and pay attention to the light (I haven’t done this).

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