How to Build a Time Machine
Attentiveness. The knack for staying in the present.
But let’s step back from the family history for a moment and look at the media—print (books, magazines, diaries, comic books), radio, and television—that affected me growing up.
Soon after we arrived in Minnesota, I took up a new habit. You’ll recall the book “Something From All of Us” we made in Mrs. Husman’s 4th grade class in a previous post. That’s probably when it started. After reading Scholastic Books (ordered through school, delivered to us there, and devoured in days, if not hours), and being placed in a color-coded reading program whose name, thanks to a helpful reader, I now recall was the SRA Reading Laboratory Kit, I immediately took to anything printed. Reading came easily to me; writing naturally followed.
In December 1972 I bought my first diary. It had a lock and key (to keep out the prying eyes of baby brother), ruled lines with dividers for 5 years’ worth of entries. I bought it at the drugstore then located at 7-Hi Center in Minnetonka, likely with money given to me by my grandparents at Christmas.
I soon realized five years a page didn’t give me nearly enough space to write in, so I made it into a 2-year diary by allotting more space for the following year. Even then, when there wasn’t enough space I taped little slips of paper to the entries as an addendum.
As a 13-year old completely in thrall of all things bookish, I wrote a “foreword,” feeling I needed to explain to my future self “the times I live in.” I wrapped up with, “This diary, in a form, is like a time machine,” which I’d lifted from a Boy’s Life article on diary writing. It’s with no small irony that the article’s statement, “Everybody eats and sleeps, so what?” still applies today to the content of most people’s Twitter posts. It goes on to say, “Write it like a letter to yourself, honest and to the point.” (I took this advice to heart and every December wrote a letter to myself about the year past and what I hoped for in the year ahead. Worth an entirely different post in itself.)
Just glancing through the entries written in 1973–74, there’s not a lot of introspection or emotional confessions. I was probably nervous about committing my thoughts to paper, and waded carefully into it—just enough to get into the habit of writing daily. In the blog posts coming up, I’ll pore over each year in the diaries and use them as a springboard for topics. What’s not written on the page still has a home somewhere deep in my memory.
Anyway, the practice of journal writing has stayed with me, fairly consistently for over 35 years. During that time I graduated to a hardcover ruled chemistry book (after briefly trying out the old Mead Composition books), chiefly because I liked the durability of the covers (and could label the spines with years included) and the overall heft of those chem books.
Which leads to another thought about journal writing, and pretty much anything printed in general—the sheer sensuality of paper: its color, size, feel. I like the snap of a page turned, the scratching of the blue-black fountain pen down the ruled lines—all a pleasure as real and satisfying as the smell of a ripe melon or a sweet aroma of baked bread.
I learned how to type as a sophomore in high school and quickly appreciated the boost it gave when writing: I could get the words out faster and not worry about illegibility or pausing due to cramped fingers. In later journals I typed out the entries and pasted them into the chemistry books. It seems like a lot of work, but I’m still able to return to entries and add details by writing (or in some cases drawing) in the margins.
So what does it feel like to travel back in a time machine? Most of the time, it’s an inconsistent experience and largely unrewarding. Oftentimes it’s revealing how ingrained habits stay ingrained. And sometimes—sometimes—it’s a total memory rush, immersing me in the sights, sounds, even smells, of what was happening at the time.