The Time Traveler’s Lament

In 1970 I turned twenty-one. A couple of beats while you do the math. (Have you noticed how parentheses have gone completely out of style? Could have used a couple right there. There will be more.)

A lot has gone out of style since 1970. Let me refresh you on some of the salient events of that year, then describe a remarkable journey I took from 1970 to the profoundly disappointing year of 2020.

1970 was the year of Apollo 13, now remembered primarily as a movie starring Tom Hanks about the improbable survival and return to earth of three astronauts heading for the moon when their space capsule blew an oxygen tank that indirectly (such was the genius of those times) provided them with heat, light, and breathable air. I’m here to tell you that all this actually happened, notwithstanding Tom Hanks, giving us the imperishable understatement, “Houston, we have a problem.” Having no other choice, they went on, circled the moon once and, with the help of a bunch of brainy nerds on earth, fashioned a makeshift air-cleansing apparatus that allowed them to breathe in their cold, dark capsule as it plummeted hair-raisingly but safely back to earth. Nixon was president, and had prepared a maudlin speech about their brave deaths. Went back in the drawer.

The following year, NASA would send not one but two Apollo missions to the moon, but was dogged by the question of why they’d tempted fate and assigned so inauspicious a mission number to the flight that nearly killed three astronauts. And the answer was always what you’d expect from a governmental organization whose reason for being hinged on rationality and ruthless empiricism: we believe in science, not numerology. We shape outcomes. We don’t believe in fate, tempted or otherwise.

It wasn’t all heroism and science. In 1970, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix both died of heroin and alcohol, sixteen days apart, both aged 27. It was the year of My Lai (please do look it up if those two words mean nothing to you), the year of Kent State (ditto). It was the year the Beatles broke up and the US invaded Cambodia. It was the first year after the first national draft lottery the previous December, which pretty much determined which men of my age would go to fight in Vietnam and which ones could go on about their lives. Which is to say it was, no less than 2020, a year of mingled tragedy and savage uncertainty.

But it was also the year of the first Earth Day, the year that advertising cigarettes on TV was banned, the year PBS began broadcasting, the year the Environmental Protection Agency began operations, the year the national voting age was lowered to 18 and the Equal Rights Amendment was successfully brought to the floor of the House, the year the first two women were made generals in the military, the year the North Tower of the World Trade Center was completed, 1368 feet high, the tallest building in the world.

Angry though we college kids were at the draft, at the war, at Nixon, we were wildly optimistic about both our own individual futures, and about the future of humanity (such was our grandiose way of speaking in those sweeter days). A recession was ending and we were as smart as could be, the fruit of a generation raised to believe in education, ever-improving standards of living and the ultimate triumph of liberal humanism. If the moon landings proved anything, they proved that technology could accomplish essentially whatever we wanted, that war and disease and even death were just bumps in the long human slog that began with the Enlightenment and would end — who knew where? Someplace better than the world of 1970. Someplace grand. Someplace utopian. All it would take was time. Fifty years would surely be more than enough.

So imagine my surprise when, one Saturday night in 1970, having just finished a pizza and perhaps a teensy hit of hash in my dorm room and embarked on a walk across campus to breathe in the early spring air, I was approached by a figure, dressed head to foot in what appeared to be Mylar, who looked suspiciously like my favorite geology professor but couldn’t possibly be, because my professor wasn’t seven feet tall, and would never have been caught dead wearing Mylar.

The figure held up his (her?) hands before me and in very distinct English (I thought I detected a bit of Midwestern Tom Brokaw in the vowels) explained that he/she had come from the far future to see how people of my era would react to time travel (I gathered this was some sort of market research), and offered to take me to any day in any year in the next 100 years. Gamely playing along, and not wanting to seem greedy, I said sure, take me 50 years into the future. Take me to the middle of 2020.

And in what seems like the blink of an eye, that’s where I’ve arrived. And the shock of that twenty-one year old boy is hard to overstate.

First of all, there’s a world-wide pandemic going on, a virus, something we’d thought we’d left behind back in the Fifties, and not only is this not being handily managed by 21st century science and government, but it will be a year and a half, minimum, before a vaccine is generally available. Meanwhile half a million people will have died, economies have tanked, states and nations are competing with each other for supplies, and people are reduced to hiding in their homes and venturing out with masks on their faces. No one touches, much less kisses. Six feet apart. So much for the sexual revolution I left back in 1970.

That’s the smart ones. Then there are factions who think the pandemic is a hoax, who think vaccines are a hoax, a plot to turn their children into vegetables. Or something. Anti-vaxers, they call them. Immunization skeptics. Fifty-one percent of Americans say they may not get the vaccine when it’s available. Americans, who once sent men to the moon twice in a single year. Of course, some of them think the moon landings were a hoax, too.

I hate to come right out and say it, but people are, on average, much, much dumber than they were in 1970. A lot fatter, too, but mainly dumber, as well as more gullible and more cynical. Something obviously happened to education in America in the last 50 years. Like it stopped. Or failed so monstrously that there are a lot of perfectly capable, seemingly intelligent individuals going about their lives who think that their mere ability to think something must make it true, and are certain that this magical equation is inscribed in the First Amendment. (Lots of talk about the Constitution these days, I notice. Not a lot of reading of it.)

The Second Amendment is also very popular here in the 21st century. The right to bear arms (they leave out the part about the militia) shall not only not be infringed, but shall be used as an excuse for overweight (always), superannuated schoolyard bullies to walk around in major cities brandishing assault rifles. This, they believe, is a badge of freedom. If we’d done this at an anti-war rally in 1970, we’d still be in jail.

And government? The United Nations, which we’d assumed was the forerunner of an enlightened global consensus that would, with time (50 years, say), render borders and wars obsolete, has become a joke, and the world has reverted to a feral nationalism that would have made Hitler or Mussolini drool.

American politics? Locked in a dystopian dance of partisanship and insult. It’s basically like the Fifties, McCarthyism and all that, but with no one left to stand up and ask “at long last, sir, have you no decency?” Some orange buffoon in the White House, who I guess was somehow elected president (I vaguely remember reading about some spoiled child of a New York City slumlord, but this just can’t be that Donald Trump), keeps talking about building an actual, physical wall between the US and Mexico, as if this were 12th century Yorkshire and not 21st century America. Where is Dick Nixon when we need him? Long dead, of course. He was bad, but at least he could string together two complete sentences, called guns an abomination, and thought NATO was a sensible idea.

As near as I can tell, American civilization peaked somewhere in the mid-Nineties, and it’s been all downhill from there. Ice caps melting, too late to do anything, guess we should have seen that one coming. Race riots same as then, but a black man became president and somehow survived (unlike some of the best leaders of my time), but then we tired of all that aspirational sincerity and quickly dismantled most of what he did and stood for. Much too demanding. Better to elect a president whose main qualification consisted of having a TV show about firing people.

There’s a lazy, unearned arrogance to the citizenry that would have been laughable back in my time (now called “the day” for some reason). People who’ve accomplished basically nothing in life are the most vocal with their opinions. Good old Yeats, with his convictionless best and impassioned worst; he predicted all this and we college kids assumed he was ‘way too pessimistic. We had read 1984, thought we’d recognize demagoguery when we saw it and reject it out of hand. Instead we found it entertaining. Worse, we found it useful.

This may be in part because of the phones, which seem to be the singular technological achievement of the past few decades. Little black monoliths, smaller than a transistor radio, packed with computer chips, quite impressive, really. Like a handheld TV, but with more buttons. People can’t put them down, walk down the street with their faces in them, bumping into lampposts, poking out messages with their thumbs. Actually talking on the phone has gone completely out of style (like parentheses). Everything is wireless, so you can get complete crap over the airwaves from anywhere. They call it social media, to distinguish it from some media that aren’t social, I guess. Still trying to figure that one out. Its main function seems to be to allow people to send photos of themselves across the planet while saying extremely vile things to one other.

Never would have dreamed this. Expected so much more. All the cars are so much smaller, and none of them fly. You’ve got to pump your own gas, and they show you ads on a little TV while you do it, as if you didn’t get enough of that from your phone. The technology of air travel and washing machines hasn’t changed in 80 years. There was a supersonic plane a few years back, but they grounded it, made too much noise. No one bothers to go to the moon anymore, and Mars seems farther away than ever. They just sent a couple of astronauts to a low-orbit space station that looks like an Erector set (Google that, too), but NASA needed some electric car magnate to make the rocket for them, because the federal government couldn’t possibly afford to, what with all the tax cuts and the need to bail out the economy due to the pandemic. National debt stands at a million squazillion, but nobody talks about it anymore, because everyone finally admitted they can just print money endlessly. Oh, they finally got around to electric cars. Whoop-die do.

Kennedy was 43 when he became president. Even Nixon was only 56 when he did. We used to think youth was a positive quality. Now all the politicians are ancient. The fat orange guy in the White House is 73, and he’s running against a skinny grey guy who’s 76. It’s the downside of the demographic bulge that made us a “youth movement” back in that day. Sorry, the day. We knew we’d get old, but who knew we’d get this cynical, this easily bought.

My friend in the Mylar suit warned me this was a one-way trip, so I can’t complain. But really, the future is a big disappointment. Maybe I should have picked 2070. Things must be wonderful by then. Right?

5 thoughts on “The Time Traveler’s Lament

  1. Funny and depressing! Love the incisive wit.
    At least now in 2020 we have Chipotle, Netflix and yoga pants.

  2. You are right. A few things are better, most not. Of course the last three years under Trump have caused major regression. Trump has what my father (of blessed memory) referred to as the ‘reverse Midas touch” in that every thing he does is feculent and everything he touches turns into excrement..

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