Saturday, 24 September 2011

Time Travel without a Time Machine

Homecoming and reunion season seems to be upon us.  Here's an article I wrote some years back about a high school reunion I attended:

Time Travel without
a Time Machine

By Sheldon Goldfarb

     The other day I read that the noted physicist Stephen Hawking has changed his mind about the possibility of time travel.  Apparently, he now thinks it may be possible.
     Ah, I thought, he must have recently attended a high school reunion.
     What a bizarre thing, a high school reunion.  To go back into the past 10, 20, or 25 years, to look up old acquaintances not seen since graduation day, to reveal your new, and hopefully improved, self to the people who liked, ignored, or bullied you so many years before--to travel back into the past, in other words.
     I have just recently returned, if indeed I have completely returned, from such an experience, from a trip 3000 miles across the country and 25 years into my past.  It was a very odd experience.
     When I arrived at the Town Hall, just a couple of blocks from the old high school itself (a high school no longer catering to persons of my linguistic persuasion), I thought I was in the wrong place.  Once, after high school, in my brief career as a journalist, I covered a city council meeting in that very town hall, and now I thought I had encountered another one.  The room was full of middle-aged men and women, some with white hair.
     “Is this the Mount Royal reunion?” I asked dubiously.
     Oh, but yes, yes--yes, it was.  And especially with the help of the name tags everyone was wearing, I could eventually see that these middle-aged men and women were none other than the teenagers I had gone to school with.
     There then followed an almost endless round of “Long time no see,” as, drinks in hand, we exchanged pleasantries and gently quizzed each other on the 25-year gap.
     What a relief to find that the person I thought had published a book before I had actually had not.  That was someone else with the same name.  And how reassuring to find that the person who had followed an almost identical career path as mine had, also like me, been unable to find tenured employment in it.
     On the other hand, how daunting to encounter a senior vice-president of a major communications firm and to realize that dozens of my cohort had already reproduced themselves and were raising families.  How adult, how much further along than me.
     Of course, being further along can have its drawbacks too.  Look at the contemporaries of mine who had lost their hair or gone all grey.
     On the other hand, and sometimes this seemed even odder, look at the ones who hardly seem to have changed at all--or who had improved, slimmed down, become perkier and self-assured.  Maybe I should have spent more time with them way back when ...
     But the oddest thing was to see yourself through others’ eyes, through eyes that were expecting to see your teen-aged self, not the forty-something person you had become.
     “Oh, Sheldon, still the radical,” they’d say, commenting on my beard and red tie.
     “No, no,” I tried to say, not wanting to be too craven or disloyal to my former self, but still trying to distance my present self from some of my past follies of opinion, to assert that nowadays I am a moderate, even a conservative.
     In fact, this was a major disappointment to one of my old political sparring partners, who had been looking forward to a momentary resumption of our old debates on the relative merits of socialism and free enterprise.
     “But I can’t really debate you anymore,” I said.  “Now I believe more or less what you do.  I consider myself a conservative.”
     But I wonder now, after the experience, if I really am.  Compared to all the cleanshaven doctors, lawyers, and business executives who have come out of my graduating class, maybe I am still the radical after all--what with my pursuit of literary and intellectual interests, my single status, my distance from the business milieu, my beard.
     Radical intellectual, conservative intellectual--what’s the difference?  Seen from the world of business, it is perhaps all one.
     And what a disorienting thought that is.  There’s nothing like a little time travel to shake up one’s old perceptions.

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