Friday, October 7, 2011
Travels in Time
Our Shelter Rock computer guy, Ron Kliot, put an interesting question to me the other day, one that’s been with me ever since. How, he asked, would I respond if it were to be announced tomorrow that a time machine has been invented, patented and manufactured, and that I personally have been selected to test it out. There are, however, some serious flaws, in the machine’s operating system: time travelers will only be able to travel back in time twenty years exactly, the duration of the traveler’s visit to the past will be exactly five minutes, and the only person in the past who will be able to see or hear the time traveler during his or her visit from the future will be the twenty-year-younger version of him or herself. (Anticipating my next question, Ron also revealed one other flaw in the system: that the younger version of the traveler, the person being visited in earlier time, will somehow be able to remember whatever the later version of him or herself has to say, but not the experience itself. That’s why, supposing this were to be true, none of us remembers meeting three-year-older versions of our current selves seventeen years ago.) And so, cast in slightly weird, science-fiction-y terms was the challenge Ron laid down just before Yom Kippur for me to accept or not to accept as I saw fit: if I actually could travel back to 1991 and visit the thirty-eight year old me, and if I had exactly five minutes to say whatever I would like for that version of myself to know without having to find it out for himself the hard way over the ensuring twenty years and if the younger me would be able to recall, if not the experience itself, then at least the message I will have traveled back in time to transmit…so what exactly would I say to the younger me?
It’s a good question. My first attempts at answers—“Buy Apple!”, followed shortly by “Buy Google!”—were unimpressive and a bit childish: if I really could talk to the twenty-year-younger me, would stock tips be the best I could do? (I heard that! But surely you don’t really think that the only thing that would make your life (or my life) better or happier now would be having made more money or acquired a more cleverly-put-together portfolio back then! Yeah, yeah…me too! But, seriously, is that really what you’d use your five minutes to say? Mind you, I don’t think insider trading laws could be made to apply to advice you give yourself!) But seriously, and clever-investment-advice jokes aside, what actually would you tell yourself? Or, since Ron put this to me, let me phrase that in a more personal way: what would I tell myself if I only could? (Just for the record, Google only went public in 2004. But Apple was trading at $47 a share on my birthday in 1991 and for $345 on my birthday this year. And it closed at thirty dollars or so higher than that yesterday, even after the untimely death of Steve Jobs. Oh well!)
My father was still alive in 1992. Would now-me have warned then-me that I had less than seven years less to ask him all the things I never actually did get around to asking about? That sounds like more worthy counsel than stock tips, but traveling that particular route opens other doors I have always preferred to leave shut. Why is it exactly that I never asked my dad about his first marriage—including not even his first wife’s name or her eventual fate—or about his parents’ apparently extremely complicated relationship? Why do I know more or less nothing at all about my father’s mother’s family. And why have I never met anyone at all from my father’s father’s family other than my father and his siblings themselves? My father graduated from high school in 1934 and married my mom in 1951. Why is it I have no clear idea where he lived or what he was up to for the intervening seventeen years? There’s a photograph somewhere in one of our albums of him in Florida…but I don’t really know why he was there or how long he lived there, or even, to speak honestly, if he lived there or was just visiting. Even typing these questions out is extremely stress-inducing for me and, as I find myself formulating them I simultaneously also know that I would never have used my five minutes in the past to go there, that if I really wanted all those doors open I would have opened them on my own during the many years I could have. I was, after all, forty-six years old when my father died! And I certainly wouldn’t have needed a boost from future-me to formulate the questions that would possibly have pried them open, just the courage I lacked then and no longer need to lack now.
Twenty years ago, we lived in Richmond, British Columbia, a suburb of Vancouver situated on half-rural, half-suburban Lulu Island in the alluvial delta of the mighty Fraser, the province’s longest river. It was a kind of a paradise, British Columbia. Growing up in Queens, I hadn’t ever seen bald eagles nesting in the wild or flying around overhead. I certainly hadn’t ever walked along a riverbank and seen seals jumping in and out of the water just a few yards off the beach or owned a dog that felt entirely free to jump into the water to join them for a quick swim. I don’t believe I even knew there were such things as snowy owls, let alone that I would be able eventually to recognize their call (something like a hoarse gawwwwh) from a distance, and to distinguish it from their alarm bark (which is more like quacking than gawwwwh-ing). You get the picture. It was beyond gorgeous. We throve there for as long as we stayed, or we thought we did. But perhaps if I could have five minutes with the 1991-iteration of myself I would suggest focusing a little less on the owls and a little more on my children…and asking myself if all that natural splendor was worth the price we paid for living as far as we did from the kind of Jewish life that they only got to know once we finally landed in New York. (California, if anything, was a step down, not a step up, in that regard. I’ll write about that whole experience some other time.) I don’t regret our time in B.C., not even a little bit. But I do think that now-me would have used at least a minute or two of the five to tell then-me not to linger too long at the fair…and to make sure we were back on the East Coast before it was too late for my kids truly to profit from the move.
So that’s possibly how I would use three of my five minutes: buy Apple (did you really think I’d skip that part?) and move east. But what about the other two minutes…what would I use them to say? Supposing there will be some magic mechanism built into the system that prevents time-travelers from revealing future winning lottery numbers or Kentucky Derby winners to their younger selves, I think I’d spend my final two minutes telling myself to stick with my fiction, to keep writing novels no matter what, to understand that, in the end, what my children will treasure most of my legacy will be the books and stories I leave behind for them to contemplate—biz hundert-tzvantzik—one day in my absence.
As you all know, I write a lot. I’m in the middle of a huge book project right now which you will learn more about as soon as you have a chance to read our October Shelter Rock bulletin. And the project behind that one, my Chumash (that is to say, my personal, slightly idiosyncratic translation and commentary on the five books of the Torah) is coming up behind that once I finally get The Observant Life off my work desk.
As many of you know, I do most of my writing in the morning before minyan and in the evening, if I can stay awake, after minyan if I don’t have anything keeping me at shul after that. I spend a lot of my Wednesdays at my desk trying to write. And Joan and I generally take our vacations in the summertime somewhere that I will be able to spend at least a few hours a day at my desk. But, for all I try to devote myself to my writing, it’s also so easy not to find the time, not to have the energy to focus on something that requires the kind of concentration I try to bring to my writing when what I really feel like doing is watching a rerun of Law and Order on television and going to bed. I do it…but I could do it more assiduously. And maybe that is what I’d tell my 1991-self if I could: that most of everything eventually fades away, but that not everything does. And that I should feel privileged, not burdened, by whatever ability I possess to express myself in words that could possibly end up constituted my most previous legacy. I feel that way about our congregation as well, by the way: I serve Shelter Rock in many different ways, most of which I have in common with most other rabbis. But my personal gift to our shul is my writing. I’ve been gratified over the years by the reception you have all accorded to Siddur Tzur Yisrael, and to its companion volume for the house of mourning, Zot Nechamati. I have been pleased as well by the way Riding the River of Peace, the book for young people that we published in memory of the late Dr. Jeffrey Siegel, was received by many of you. Just this year, I felt proud and very pleased to be able to offer you the three stories we brought out for the High Holidays, “Teshuvah,” “Tefillah,” and “Tzedakah,” and I was very touched and pleased by the response they elicited from so many of you. So I think that’s what I’d use the last two of my five minutes to do: to remind myself not to give up, not to imagine that it’s all for naught, that reading is a lost art cultivated by almost no one at all in our digital age. And I hope I’d listen too!
Of course, since in this fantasy I’m spinning out for you one of the rules is that you get to remember the message but not the messenger, maybe I did learn these things from myself…not, obviously, in 1991, but perhaps in 1993 or 1995, twenty years before some point in the future at which time travel finally is possible. True, that would still leave open the question of why I didn’t buy Apple at least then. (On my birthday in 1995, Apple was trading at $42 a share, even less than a few years earlier!) But it would at least explain why we eventually knew we had to come back east, and why I have made the writing of stories and books the foundation stone upon which I have attempted to build my rabbinate.
And that is what I learned from our computer guy the other day when he stopped by to fix something in the office and, while waiting for the damned thing to boot up again, had a few minutes to shmooze with me before he had to get back to work and I had to rush off to choir rehearsal.