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All things old are new again (Paper Trail 2.2)


When Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play appeared about ten years ago, I purchased several copies and gave them to students, colleagues and friends (not that I draw fine lines of distinction between those groups). Ackerman’s contention is that notions of work and play are not antipodes on a straight-line spectrum; opposites, antitheses. Instead, she bends that axis into a circle; permitting the extreme intensity and involvement of work to recognize its natural counterpart in play. The degree of our engagement with either work or play — our creativity — draws us inexorably to the blurred conjunction of the pair.

Ask any child of six to put away the game, to disengage from the puzzle. “Just five more minutes, Mom.” Whatever the task at hand, their focus is so intense that play has become work and vice versa. Work-Play are conjoined at the nexus of Space-Time, excluding all else. Children know this instinctively. So, what has our child-rearing and educational system done to suppress it in most adults? Good question, for which I have no easy answer. What Ackerman delineates so well is also, I think, at the heart of Richard Florida’s Creative Class.

Blithe admissions that I “play in the past” acknowledge Diane Ackerman’s presence in Agincourt. It will hardly surprise me to find that she’s received an honorary degree from Northwest Iowa Normal and planted the notion of work-as-play at one of its recent commencement exercises. I’ll bet Howard was there.

Today I think of (and thank) Ms Ackerman as the NITC depot takes form.

Paper Trail 2.2

The benefit of a long life (and there are detriments, by the way, but that’s another story) is that I’ve been around long enough to witness patterns as cycles; the patterns that some ideas represent are born again or, just as likely, have simply refused to die. Light rail is one of them.

In the early years of the 20th century, the U.S. enjoyed one of the world’s great networks of light rail, then known as interurbans: heavier duty than street railways (trollies); lighter than passenger trains. Interurbans filled both gap and need, serving a regional audience when travel by auto was expensive and ill-served by state and national networks of paved roads.

The Northwest Iowa Traction Co. connected logically at Fort Dodge with another system. That was the beauty of interurbans: independent companies saw the non-competitive inter-linking of their lines as an advantage to ridership. At one point in the 1920s it would have been possible (though lunatic) to travel by multiple independent but interconnected systems from Chicago to New York. It might have taken three days but it was nonetheless possible. We will never see such a system again (nor should we) but shards of it are being reborn across America.


The NITC depot in Agincourt — hub and headquarters of its seventy-six mile line — has existed in sketch form since 2007. But it must evolve in the next month for two reasons: 1) it is something I simply need to do (fulfilling my lust for playing in the past) and more importantly 2) David Crutchfield has volunteered to redevelop this 1909 building for its own mini-centennial in 2009 as the energy-conserving headquarters of the local Fennimore County power company.

Who am I to deny another’s need to play in the sandbox that is Agincourt.

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