How to Build a Time Machine

First, you’ll need something that I’ve struggled to get all my life. Attentiveness. The knack for staying in the present.

First let me 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 five 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.

Next up … “Radio Days or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Listen to KDWB’s Rob Sherwood.”

~ by completelyinthedark on February 20, 2011.

4 Responses to “How to Build a Time Machine”

  1. Wow. You actually did what so many of us readers though we should do. And you kept ’em! Good for you! I started diaries and was so disgusted when I re-read them, I got discouraged. Didn’t start again until about 1988…. Reread the whole mess about 6 months ago and it was indeed like getting reacquainted with a person I hardly remember now. …a bit like watching “The Doors” movie and feeling shocked at how much I’d forgotten about that time.

    See, sometimes I do read your blog 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I realize how limited most people’s time is, but I will keep writing this because it’s stuff from my life I need to remember. Maybe down the road it will make sense to others, too, but that’s a side benefit. Also big hat tip to @lisajanepersky for informing me the exact name of the reading lab kit from elementary school!


  2. I envy your collection of diaries.

    I encountered a fairly minor false memory the other day — a scene in a movie that never occurs but that I had imagined happened because it fit nicely with my own narrative. It got me wondering what other more substantial memories I owe to my personal myth making rather than to what actually happened.

    A set of diaries won’t settle any particular discrepancy definitively but it will act as a useful third party witness!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks bud. The early diaries are woefully imprecise. But big events, like weddings etc. I made sure to even sketch where people were seated. That can be REALLY interesting to see again years later! 🙂


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