"Absolute, true, mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external."
"If, for instance, I say, 'That train arrives here at 7 o'clock, I mean something like this: 'The pointing of the small hand of my watch to 7 and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events...
"To those of us who believe in physics, this separation between past, present and future is only an illusion, if a stubborn one."
"Whoa. This is heavy."
-- Marty McFly,
Back To The Future
I've always been interested in time-travel stories, mostly because I think that our present-day concept of time itself is illusory, that the past and present and future are all somehow interrelated, folding in on themselves, overlapping, blending into each other. Whether in movies or fiction, time-travel tales offer a different, more palatable perspective. They say: "The past? Oh, that's just over there. The future? Just up ahead. You wanna go? Let's go, hop in, take a seat, don't forget to buckle up." The past, present and future thus become tangible destinations; you can actually go there. You can touch the land. Smell the breeze. It has a tangible, physical, emotional weight.
In (what we call) reality, time and physical weight? That, I'm not sure of. Emotional weight? You bet your ass.
As you get older, your life grows shorter as your memory grows longer, and the past continues to hold sway over your present, while the future hides in wait, refusing to show its cards. They are all co-conspirators, these past, present and future schemers, and we are the victims, while I suspect that the ultimate con is a simple one: the transparent illusion of time itself. (Maybe that's why I find reincarnation, as a concept, so neat.)
And yet, I truly believe that time and aging are all within the confines of our minds, malleable to our will. I'm 29, but I don't know if I feel 29, or 46, 0r 11. I am what I am what I am, as Popeye said. (And, for the record, I think Robin William's Popeye movie from 198o is freakin' great. Vastly underrated. Just had to get that off my chest.) Our bodies start to creak a little more as the days and weeks do their traditional dance, but within this progression comes wisdom, perspective, and regression, too, the ability to see our childhoods a little more clearly, understand our past selves with a more tender level of empathy and awe. The physical declines as the mental gains new altitude.
Having said all that, back to my main point -- time travel stories are freakin' cool. I love the Back to the Future trilogy (so much so that that will have to wait for a later post -- you've been warned). Loved Quantom Leap. Loved Christopher Reeve's Somewhere in Time and the Jack-the-Ripper-in- 1970's- San Francisco- flick Time After Time. Loved Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Loved an early 1980's show called Voyagers, where a young man and his protege travelled through time. (Anybody remember that one?)
All these flicks inevitably led to the archetypal on-the-lawn, sipping-lemonade, looking-at-the-stars-question: Past or future? Where'd you rather go?
For me, there was no real choice. It was always the future.
Not to say that visiting the past wouldn't be awesome. It would. You could check out the pyramids of Egypt and Angkor being constructed. You could see Dickens' London up close and personal. Be there when Marilyn Monroe sang 'Happy Birthday' to J.F.K. Witness the Titantic leaving its port for the first and final time.
The allure of the past, for me, aside from all that cool historical debris, is to see and fell and taste and here what it was actually like.
Future generations will able to see, on film, a complete and total record of life in the 2o and 21st century -- our fashions, our trends, the way we looked, the way we talked. They will be able to view our presidents and prime ministers, watch their speeches, analyze their actions by way of honest-to-god footage; they will be able to study M*A*S*H and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Star Wars and Saved by the Bell: The College Years to find out what we liked, and why. (Did Screech end up graduating?) God knows what they'll make of all this stuff, but it'll be there for our great-great-great grandchildren to at least gawk at, if nothing else.
But we, us, my fellow citizens of the 21st century, don't and can't really know what the past was like. Not really; not truly. We can't view it or listen to it. Everything before photography is speculation, really. It was there, the past; it happened. We know that. Books tell us that. But its very presence, devoid of solid, concrete proof, renders it somewhat...inert. Lifeless. Stale. To me.
Ah, but the future...
The future is nothing but blue skies and mystery, mystery, mystery. (The human mind thrives on mystery; it craves it. It hordes it. Who is the new girl that moved in next door, and what will my new boss look like, and why does my Uncle Sal always pick his nose then flick it when he knows that people are looking at him, what with his lazy lefty eye and all, and how did all those Desperate Housewives get so desperate in the first place, and who will be the next president, Hillary or Condi or McCain or Oprah, and what will this restaurant's burger taste like, I've heard it's good, but I have my doubts, their fries blow, and will my path in life be stable, steady, happy. We need mystery to keep us going, and the future is nothing but.)
At the end of Back to the Future, Marty Mcfly and his girlfriend Jennifer and Doc Brown fly off into the year 2015, and then...nothing. The picture ends. Time to go home and wipe the goobers off of the soles of your sneakers (a legacy of that sticky-floor feeling composed of spilt Coke and stale popcorn, a sweet and synthetic velcro, I remember it so well from all of St.Catharines' cinemas, and what a memory to cherish, but I do, I do...)
Whaaaaaaat? How could they do this to me? You can't, can't, can't just have them go into the freakin' future and not show it!
I had to wait four years, for the sequel, to find out what Hill Valley looked like, all those years from now.
But it gave me time to think, that gap. To wonder. The year 2015...wow. And now here we are, only ten years from that wondrous date, and while I could be wrong I don't think that there will be flying cars soaring through the skies, or tiny Pizza Hut pizzas that magically inflate and expand jumbo-like after ten seconds of cooking.
Oh, but that's inevitable, isn't it, this downplay of expectations? The year 2001 was once a magical and mystical realm of possibility, sheer, glimmering potential -- and now? Now, it's remembered as the year a group of young Saudis carried a bunch of box cutters onto a couple of planes.
Reality has a way of first diminishing, then eradicating, what was once regarded as prophecy.
The important, resilient idea is this: When we think about the future, dream about it, write about it, we're projecting hope, plain and simple, no matter how nihilistic or craven our visions ends up being. If there's a future, it means, at the primal level: Life has survived. We've made it. And we want to see and feel what this new reality will be like because it means, fundamentally, that we, as humanity, endure. We survive. We exist. Where will we go? How will we get there? Will everybody still love Raymond? This desire to see the future simply links us back to our most basic human desires: We want to know; we want to touch the mystery.
We want to see how it all turns out.