Tag Archives: conduct


Pullman Parlor Car, 1883

con·duct (ˈkän-dəkt)  n. [<  L.  conductus, pp. of conducere; see CONDUCE],  1. a leading; guidance.  2. management; handling.  3. behavior; deportment; way that one acts.  4. [Obs.], an escort; convoy  v.t. 1. to lead; escort.  2. to manage; control; direct; carry on.  3. to direct (an orchestra, etc.) 4. to behave (oneself).  5. to be a channel for; convey; transmit: as, this wire conducts electricity.  v.i. 1. to lead.  2. to act as a conductor.

SYN.—conduct, in this comparison, implies a supervising by using one’s executive skill, knowledge, wisdom, etc. (to conduct a sales campaign); direct implies less supervision of actual details, but stresses the issuance of general orders or instructions (to direct the construction of a dam); manage implies supervision that involves the personal handling of all details (to manage a department); control implies firm direction by regulation or restraint and often connotes complete domination (the school board controls the system). See also behave.

For a long time, I had a tin can in which I kept prized items. One of the items was a brass button that had been removed from the blazer jacket of my paternal grandfather. On it were the raised letters: P-U-L-L-M-A-N.

Grandpa was a superintendent for the Pullman Company. When I explained his job as a child, I often mistook him for the conductor, imagining my portly Grandpa donning one of those navy and white striped caps and, for some reason unbeknownst to me, always carrying a clipboard. I imagined him standing on the step leading up to the car, holding onto the sidecar handle as the train pulled away.

The truth is that he had at one point been a conductor. He worked himself up the ranks from positions I don’t even know the names of to conductor to vice-superintendent in St. Louis and then superintendent in New Orleans.

My Grandpa was a self-made man. Although he never went to college, he had an insatiable appetite for learning. He always had a stack of a dozen books on the coffee table: library books about sociology, about history, about psychology. He encouraged his children’s curiosity, asking them questions and engaging in their learning process. He died when I was seven so I did not get to know him well. Much of my memory of him has been fleshed out in hearing stories from family members.

Pullman Car Built in 1928

In 1952, he relocated his wife and, at the time, four children from St. Louis to New Orleans to take a promotion to be superintendent there. The family traveled by train.

My dad told me that he and his siblings used to love to look out the windows at the countryside, as they did on every trip they made from New Orleans back to St. Louis to visit extended family. It was still the heighday of trains and the riding coaches. Their sleeping cars not only featured pull-down beds but sofas to relax on. The dining car served passengers their meals on fine china. On their laps lay linen napkins. At night, Grandpa would leave his shoes in a locker and the porter would put a fresh coat of polish on them by morning.

Pullman Sleeping Car Porters

As superintendent, Grandpa was in more of a behind-the-scenes role, managing staff and schedules, making sure everything ran on time. He was in charge of hiring and supervising employees like porters and conductors, cooks and waiters. He had to ensure the cars were in condition to roll on the rails and that his staff took care of their responsibilities. Although he did a lot of this from his office, sometimes he would ride on trips himself, like from New Orleans to Baton Rouge on LSU game days, to directly supervise and make sure everything ran smoothly.


The first time I traveled by train was when I was nine years old. As I recall, I was traveling from New Orleans to Atlanta to visit family there. All that I remember about that trip is playing travel Yahtzee and eating Little Debbie snack brownies from the concession car. I had expected the concession car to be more like dining cars I had seen in movies so imagine my disappointment when I saw that it more closely resembled the snack bar at our community pool.

When I studied abroad in Rome in college, I traveled by train frequently, throughout Italy and Europe. Traveling by train felt exotic to me. It was a symbol of my independence and each new trip felt like an adventure. Although I was nowhere near a vagabond, I sometimes indulged myself in feeling like one. I have a vivid memory of traveling through Ireland with my friend Heidi and looking out the window at the blur of the hills, thinking I had never seen anything so green. I remember trying to journal about it and being so dissatisfied with all the descriptions I attempted: verdant, fresh, like a football field. The green there was a sort of violent green, impatient with its beauty.

And then there was the time when I mistakenly filled out my Eurorail pass before the train porter came to my cabin. At this point, I was traveling alone from Barcelona to Madrid, and I didn’t speak Spanish or Catalan. I couldn’t explain myself to the porter. Some compassionate middle-aged women in the cabin tried to communicate with me, me in Italian and them deciphering through Spanish. They tried to argue with the porter for me, but it was to no avail. I had lost one of my trip tickets, and I was angry at myself and frustrated. As I lay on my bunk crying, I felt the opposite of independent.

When the train trips meld together, I experience them in a whirring sort of way that replicates the sounds of metal on metal, the echo of wind banging up against the sidecar. These rides were a contrast of things for me—the calm of watching the landscape pass by and the exhilaration, but sometimes fear, of the unknown. These trips were about discovering new worlds and also about overcoming my hesitancy and timidity to enter these worlds alone.

While I know that my journey to feeling more independent and understanding myself better was a gradual one, I remember a breaking point. It was my last week in Rome, and there were some things I wanted to do: return to the Spanish steps, find an Italian cookbook at this specific bookstore, wander back to the Pantheon. None of my friends wanted to do these with me. Instead of abandoning my mission, I had the sudden realization that I could do this on my own. This might seem like an obvious progression. However, I had spent much of my adolescence deciding  what I would do based on other people’s decisions. I did not like to be alone.

And here, there were added intimidations. I was in a foreign country with a foreign language. I had to navigate public transportation in this other language. I had to risk being lost. I had to risk making a fool of myself. I had to risk being alone. I had to risk finding my way by myself.

However, I had lived in Rome at this time for four months, and I could speak the language enough to get by. I knew how to read the bus maps. I knew how to get around. The biggest motivator, though, was that I wanted to do these things and I didn’t care whether someone else was with me or not. I would get myself there. And also, I felt at that moment that I was enough. I remember intense satisfaction when I returned home from my day adventure. I had figured out how to navigate the terrain, without needing anyone else.


My dad speaks of his father with pride, not only because he was good at his job but because he had a commitment to equality and justice in the South during times of deep prejudice and injustice. It was his desire to treat everyone fairly.

Inventor of the Pullman Railroad Car, George Mortimer Pullman --- Image by © CORBIS

While I had misremembered that he retired, Grandpa actually left that job when the Pullman Company went out of business in the late 60s, the company no longer able to keep afloat with competing business from air and interstate travel.

My uncle was still living at home at that point and he remembers that on his last day, Grandpa brought a card table and chair to work because the office furnishings had been sold. When the day was done, he packed them up and came home.

I wonder how it felt to him to have worked his way up the system like that, based on his own willingness to learn and develop his skills. I wonder what it felt like to have to experience that loss, to have to make a change not out of desire but out of necessity. I wonder what it felt like to watch a world, a way of life, so unique and compelling become obsolete. And I wonder what it felt like to him to live a life defined by motion, to hear the wheels, to look out the window as states flew by. I wonder what it felt like to walk from car to car, talking to passengers and reviewing schedules, seeing the inner mechanisms of the railroad run like the engine at the front of the train. I wonder what it felt like to witness family vacations and business trips and honeymoons unfold and know that, in simply doing his job, he had played a role in making them happen.


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port⋅ance, v1

As I mentioned in my last post, this week I will be featuring posts by guest contributors who are offering their own insights and observations on the first word ever randomly selected for the dictionary project:

port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor

This first post is from Julie Lauterbach-Colby*.

“Lines Appearing, Distant Points”

We study the line. From point A to point B we have the closest distance. Draw a footpath, map out a solid trail of breadcrumbs. Denote journey and begin.

Intersection of lines, latitude and longitude, a knitting, a stitch. Sense of security; single location of one self in space. I say one, because, can we ever possess our whole selves in any given moment? Denote a journey, a beginning.

We are all familiar with the history of the GPS (I wasn’t). Devloped by the military to deliver an exact point, an exact location. We are talking precision here: the most authoritative mode of travel, point A to point B and nothing else, nothing outside. Similar to (and at the same time, nothing like) medieval road maps.

Matthew Paris, an English monk from the 1200s, was famous for them. He made the maps in likeness to Roman army parchment maps: thin strips, the maps only showing road and important places along that journey. Most often, these journeys were spiritual: how to travel from London to Jerusalem for a holy pilgrimage.

(How to, with accompanying pictures for each: Start in London [A]; cross the English Channel [B]; through France [C, where the whole country was drawn as a single castle with three spires]; into Italy [D]; across the sea [E]; onward to the holy land [J, with a few undeciphered points in-between].)

Notes in the margin of the parchment scaled distance, how long it would take one to travel between destinations. Roads were straight—study the line: from point A to point B we have the closet distance. Nothing exists outside the frame, no chance for wandering minds, no detail for lay of the land. These maps were about getting. About time-management, efficiency. Exactness, with a clear sense of exclusion. As in, “Shoulders back, chin up.” Presentation of one self and oneself. (I cannot seem to stress this enough.)

It was from a fear of its exactness that military personnel insisted that the GPS technology remain hidden from the world citizen. In 199__ the Clinton administration “unscrambled” the codes and put the GPS on the public’s radar.

Take a GPS and map out a ten-mile radius from where you are (your house, your car, your supermarket, your post office, your church) and follow that breadcrumb trail from each direction: go N, NE, E; SE, S, SW; W, NW. Upon arrival, turn 360° and take in the view.

You’re going to this one spot, and it’s a dictated spot. Once you get there, infinite possibilities. The first sea cartographers used x to mark not treasure but danger. Define trespassing: there are a million ways in which I lie.

*Julie Lauterbach-Colby is a writer, teacher and artist living in Tucson. She is currently working on a project that incorporates cartography, mathematical equations and cadavers, and owns her own editing business called Chicken Scratch Editing.

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and the first word is…


port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor

(definition from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition. The World Publishing Company. Copyright 1955.)

So here it is, the first word for the dictionary project. I find it interesting that portance is our first word here given my recent obsession with the AMC show Mad Men. Everything about that show revolves around decorum, around the appropriate way to walk and dress, around what it means to be a gentleman or a lady. There are rules for how the advertising executives should conduct themselves with clients. There are rules about the ways wives should take care of their husbands, home and children. There are rules about how marriages should proceed, how wives should look the other way, how husbands should be discreet with their affairs outside the home. And there are judgments based on whether women and men fit into the molds predetermined for them, whether they come from good families.

But in addition to those preset rules and values, there are also excuses made for acting outside of them. Men should always be polite and respectful to women, but, you know, boys will be boys. Men should know how to hold their drink but they should not overdo it. There is a fine line between a good businessman and a lush. You want your wife to act like a lady, but certainly not your mistress. Single ladies should be pretty and proper to attract men, but everyone knows men love seductresses. There is a fine line between a sexy woman and a whore.

I think the most fascinating thing about the show for me is that these rules are so different than the ones we follow. Dress codes have changed. Gender dynamics have changed. The nuclear family has changed. And yet, even as so much has changed in almost a half a century, there is always the memory of this time. Its residue factors into every decision and interaction we have in our daily lives. I remember as I apply for jobs that I would not have been considered for these positions fifty years ago. I remember as I am questioned by family members about my love life that being thirty and single fifty years ago would have been even more of a stigma than it is today. I remember as I see women navigate their work and family lives that there was a time that they were expected to take care of their family and be contented with that. If they were not, they could be sent to an “analyst” to figure out what was wrong with them.

A friend of mine who also watches the show questioned her own fascination with the show and with a time period so many decades ago. She wondered if it meant she would have rather lived then or if it was because her parents had existed in that world and in a similar office environment. I think there was a certain safety in having clearer lines of conduct then, particularly in the distinctions between men and women. You knew how you were supposed to behave. The answers were clear and universal, and all you needed to do was follow the handbook already written for you.

There was safety and seeming ease, but with these strict guidelines came severe limitations. What happens when you are supposed to be one way but you find yourself more complicated as a person than those rules allow? What if you are a man who enjoys taking care of your children and home? What if you are a housewife who enjoys hunting and fishing? What if you have an inheritance but find yourself without purpose and with a desire to do something, to work somewhere?

I think we are a little bit slow to recognize how many rules of conduct are still in place in our daily lives. Everything has changed—it is true. However, it is dangerous for us to assume that these values do not linger on, especially as the show has gained a following of people nostalgic for that period in history. For the truth is as I watch the women secretaries be ogled by their bosses and cohorts, I think back to times when I have felt demeaned as a woman in the workplace. As I see the lead character Don Draper reckon with his past and with his predetermined role as breadwinner and strong husband, I think of all of the men I have known who have suffered intensely from trying to maintain their masculine role and having no one to share their trials with. We would do well to see this show not merely as a reminder of what was but as a clue into what expectations continue to exist. What is good and helpful about them? What harms us as individuals and communities? What rules of conduct exist because it contributes to us being good, kind human beings? And what obsessions with portance keep us and those around us bound?


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