While setting up my garage sale yesterday, I listened to Kerri Miller’s interview with Dr. Ronald Mallett, a physicist who is seriously working on the problem of time travel. Mallett’s proposal, involving a ring laser, is less about sending people or objects through time, but more about sending information. That his work was inspired by his father’s early death, and that Mallett’s ideal message from the future would be a warning to his father to take better care of his heart, makes the efforts that much more poignant.
I wondered, though, if a message from the future would be that effective. Even if we could be certain somehow that the message really is from the future, should we listen to it? Are the interests of the future self congruent with the interests of the present self? Can the future be trusted really to know what’s best for us? What if some further future self were giving the present future self good advice that the present future self is failing to pass on to us?
If I could send a message to one of my past selves, I wondered, what might it be? Helpful words of succor to my teenaged self–assurance that things will get better–would certainly be ignored out of hand; my 40-year-old self is, after all, a grown-up, and so not entirely trustworthy. A suggestion to my 30-year-old self to buy Yahoo stock? A nudge to my 25-year-old self to take some Java classes? For the most part, I’m pretty happy with the general course my life has taken while flying blind into the future; perhaps things could have turned out better, but I’m not sure that would have resulted in more happiness.
We are always, of course, sending messages to the future, whether we know it or not, and nothing makes that clearer than setting up a garage sale. Garage sales are all about reading the past’s missives, sometimes with puzzlement. A few items I can explain: the too-small snowshoes and life vests are the inevitable result of the boys getting bigger, and the bedroom dresser made sense in the last house, less sense in the current. But other items broadcast reminders of failed projects, harebrained schemes, and odd enthusiasms. The farther back the message came from, the stranger it seems.
The machine I used to pick up most of the messages from the past was my old stereo. It’s for sale, and includes a tuner/amplifier (probably close to 40 years old; it was a hand-me-down from my father when I turned 12 and he upgraded), a high-speed dual-deck dubbing cassette player (ideal for the lost art of the mix tape), a CD player (circa 1988, when CDs were a strange new curiosity), and an 8-track player/recorder (free with purchase of any other component). (I’m keeping the phonograph; I still have lots of records, and a miniature system I can pipe the turntable through.) The stereo has been in my basement for eight years this month, unplayed, and there was a big box of tapes and CDs next to it that came up to see daylight for the first time in almost a decade.
I sorted through the tapes, and identified quite a few that can go at bargain prices. Ziggy Marley, Echo and the Bunnymen, Rick Astley, London Beat: they haven’t aged well. And then there was a big stack of CDs that came from the BBC Music Magazine: mostly workmanlike renderings of Schubert and Holst, with a few keepers but a lot I could part with at 50 cents (5 for $2).
For two days of sitting in the alley with my junk, I haven’t had much success. The neighborhood kids picked up a few items (some old baseballs, an Indigo Girls tape, a giant pocket watch that was some sort of corporate gift, a brass shamrock that may have been a wedding gift), but the problem with selling to them is that there’s a good chance things will drift back into my yard before long. I unloaded two porcelain buddhas and some children’s books that I don’t expect to see again, but I still had my large furniture and Flintstone mugs to move back to the garage.
While closing up shop, I listened to some of the messages from the past that were still accessible to present ears. Nick Drake (dubbed from a friend’s LPs–you can hear the pop and hum of the needle in the groove) still sounded good, and I was surprised at how much I still liked the 10,000 Maniacs. “Verdi Cries” (a beautiful, delicate, and evocative song; Natalie Merchant really has one of the best voices in pop) sent me to the real thing and the BBC CDs, and I took out “Dido and Aeneas,” recorded by the Taverner Choir. “Dido’s Lament” is surprisingly appropriate garage sale music, and also a good counterpoint to the dream of sending messages backward in time:
When I am laid, am laid in earth,
May my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in thy breast;
Remember me, remember me, but ah! forget my fate.
Remember me, but ah! forget my fate,
Would that all of us–and our various accumulated objects–could be so lucky, our lives recalled for their happiness, and their more troubling messages to the future lost.