Unstuck in Time

Last summer, I wrote about a series of cassettes I made called the Magnum Opus, which went out to the curb because I had no real need to keep them anymore. I am still holding on to dozens of cassettes containing various songs I dubbed from radio station copies and other sources (even though I don’t have anything to play them on). What follows is excerpted and edited from an ancient journal entry inspired by one of them. It repeats some stuff I have noodled about previously at this blog, although it occurs to me I probably noodled about it in this journal entry first.

On these tapes, I have historically made little attempt to organize by artist or genre. Weird juxtapositions are part of the fun. I was listening in the car this morning when CCR’s scarifying “Born on the Bayou” was followed immediately by the lush “Mr. Lucky” by Henry Mancini, an orchestrated instrumental punctuated with big slabs of overripe organ.

“Mr. Lucky” gave way to “Summer Samba” by Walter Wanderley. Unlike “Mr. Lucky,” “Summer Samba” comes with associations, not specific events as much as the color and angle of the light, the feeling of a time when Saturdays lasted forever, and when the best way to spend them was playing in the barn or the machine shed. When we were unmistakably children, safe in the bosom of the family, perhaps vaguely aware of Vietnam and civil rights, but untouched by their implications. “Summer Samba” was followed by “Tracy’s Theme” by Spencer Ross. It was popular about the time I was born, so the images it inspires are made from something other than experience. I listen hard to imagine a time when such a gentle thing could have been on the radio, and I wonder what it said to people who took it to heart.

All of these songs seem like artifacts from an innocent world, which is both a distortion and absolutely true. A distortion, because we were never as innocent as we like to think, and absolutely true, because nothing like them would ever make it big in our cynical age.

More instrumentals followed, and I was distracted by the car wash, but the hangover of this little trip back in time is with me now, an hour or so later. And I wonder what the hell it all means, this involuntary coming-unstuck-in-time. Is it a symptom of age? Evidence of the fact that my life today is neither what I expected nor what I wanted it to be? Or is it for the same reason I have always time-traveled—because the past seems happily manageable while the present seems chaotic and the future looks dark and menacing?

Maybe manageable isn’t the right word. Maybe malleable is better. What we love about the past may be that it’s happily malleable. We can make of it what we like. What we remember is not what really was. If we were granted our wish to go back to whatever season we would like to relive, we would certainly be shocked at how foreign it seems. And so we travel in time at our peril, especially if we expect to learn lessons we can use in the present. (Would that the conservatives who want to turn back the clock to 1958 or 1948 or 1888 understood this.)

But I find comfort in such travel, however unfaithful to reality it may be.

It was Kurt Vonnegut who wrote about being “unstuck in time,” in Slaughterhouse-Five. He explained that residents of the planet Tralfamadore are able to live in all of their moments at once. When they look up into the night sky, they don’t see points of light, they see streaks of spaghetti. They see everywhere a star has ever been and everywhere it will ever go. When a Tralfamadorian dies, his fellows do not mourn. They recognize that at one particular point, yes, he’s dead, but there are many other points at which he’s alive and well.

Although I lack the Tralfamadorian ability to see every moment at once, I do what I can. Sometimes I remember my parents as younger, my grandparents as living, old friends as not lost. I hold my girlfriend’s hand in the 70s. Forty people sing along with “Born to Run” in my college apartment. Ann walks up the aisle to me in 1983. We laugh ourselves silly at a wedding in the 90s. Sometimes I just look at the color and the angle of the light.

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One response

  1. Glad to know I’m not the only one who’s done this. When I got my first cassette recorder and first in-car unit in 1984, I made mixtapes by going through my albums (arranged in alphabetical order), laying down the tracks I liked, whether it was one or ten, from that album and moving along to the next. That resulted in the Pretenders into Rachmaninoff into the Rolling Stones….and some way weirder than that.

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