Tonight we drove the kids through the big Christmas lights display that our town sets up on its soccer fields every year. We watched the reindeer taking off with Santa's sleigh, the elves building toys at the workshop, the wise men coming to see the Baby Jesus, the twelve days of Christmas (complete with French hens sporting berets and calling birds holding telephones), and a squadron of toy soldiers popping corks out of their muskets.
Then we went into the fieldhouse where the local model railroad club had set up a big layout. The operator showed us all the little pieces of machinery -- log loader, sawmill (logs go in one side, planks come out the other), forklift to unload lumber, and my favorite: the nuclear reactor that used a magnet to pick up "fuel" (ball bearings), spun them through a sphere of flashing lights, and then dumped out "spent fuel" (glow-in-the-dark plastic pellets) into the train car.
Archer and Cady Gray got to go behind the scenes and push the buttons that made the animated pieces go, and Noel held the remote control and blew the train whistle. The kids loved it, but Noel probably loved it even more. His dad was a frustrated model train enthusiast, without a working setup. And I can appreciate the appeal. There are few things I love more than cunningly-fashioned machines, and if they're miniaturized, all the better.
Model railroad hobbyists get a bit of a bad rap for retreating to their basements, depriving their families of affection, and obsessing over toys. I always think of Reverend Lovejoy in the Simpsons episode "In Marge We Trust," playing the conductor as his model train circled the track: ""Attention, HO-scale passengers. The dining car is closed. Root beer is still available, but the cost is now six-fifty. If the passengers will look to their right, you will see a sad man. That is all."
But surely many of us want to build little worlds around ourselves, arranging their parts so they work smoothly, imagining the simplified interactions of their idealized inhabitants. Whether it's a well-ordered office, a fully-stocked TV nook, or a backyard workshop complete with tools hanging on the wall, we like to surround ourselves with an environment we control. One nice aspect of having kids is that we get to indulge in the purest form of this impulse -- driving little cars around towns made of blocks and snapping together train track. And maybe the truth is that we never outgrow it.