Unearthed Time Capsules

Hello from Emerald Isle, where I am sitting on a porch listening to waves crash on the shore. The beach in October is a pretty nice place. I’ll be here all week.

Today I want to talk about time capsules. But first, a brief moment from just a couple of days ago. It’s one of those big small moments that, unless you capture them, are lost to time. Consider it a tiny capsule, before it’s buried.

CB, October 10, 2016

You are waiting in line at the market. You hold your basket with both hands in front of you and watch as the conveyor belt scoots someone’s apples and cheese and milk forward. You are enjoying the murmur around you.

A boy runs around the corner and stops at a cold beverage case nearby. His eyes widen when he spots a root beer in an old-fashioned bottle. He reaches up with both hands and carefully retrieves the bottle from the shelf. He brings it closer to his face and studies the label. He smiles. He is probably eleven or twelve. He is big for his age, yes, but his face is unmistakably that of a child for whom wonder and joy can still pour forth from a bottle of soda on a Friday night. He skips toward an older man standing further down the aisle. He hands the bottle over and beams as the old man lowers his glasses to read the label. The man frowns and says something short as he hands the bottle back to the boy. They both walk back to the case and the boy reluctantly returns the bottle while the man quickly scans the shelves. He leans closer, selects a can, nods, and hands it to the boy. He points back and forth between the labels beneath the boy’s bottle and his can.

You wonder if this is an economics lesson or a nutrition lesson or both. You watch as the boy holds the can close now. He searches the printing on the can for something, anything to exchange his disappointment for the excitement he had before. You see that he is trying to be happy with what the man has given him. The man marches off, and as the boy follows him, he turns his head to look back at his bottle just before they round the corner.

Your heart breaks just a little bit. You wonder how the can could have possibly been a meaningfully better choice than the bottle. Was it healthier? Probably not. Was it cheaper? Maybe by a few cents. You want to replay the scene so you can see it happen differently. You want to say, Let the kid be! He’s got, what, a year — at most! — before he wouldn’t be caught dead skipping like that in public? You worry you have witnessed the last time this boy lets a simple treat fill him with joy. As you pay the cashier, you scold yourself for judging the scene. He’s not your child. You don’t know.

You drive home and weep in your car. You weep for the end of this boy’s childhood, though you know you’re not truly weeping for him. You weep for not knowing how to help a child grow up, and when their disappointment and sadness are necessary. You weep for not knowing how to let a child be a child, and when their joy is worth fighting for. You have your own child on the way and so you think about these things now. You weep for the things you will do in the future that will weather your child’s heart. You weep for every time your parents tried to preserve your childhood, and how you pulled away from them, urgent to be something you didn’t yet understand. You weep for times past and childhood’s end.

When I was in the second grade, the principal of my school unearthed a time capsule. I remember standing among a crowd of students and teachers gathered in the cafeteria as he opened it. From where I stood, I couldn’t see the capsule itself, but as the principal retrieved items from it, he held them up and explained what they were. I don’t remember how long the capsule had been buried — nor much about what it contained — but I do remember thinking that, no matter how mundane its contents, a time capsule is a very cool thing. There is something magical about how time can transform a thing, especially if it’s been hidden away. We get a small taste of that magic when we find that folded up ten-dollar bill in the winter coat that’s hung in the closet unused since last year. But we choose what to put in a time capsule, and part of the magic is in rediscovering those things and learning something about who we were when we last held them. Or, in the case of the capsule buried outside my elementary school, who those kids were from long ago and what they thought was important enough to preserve for us, far off in the future.

Sometimes I wonder whether it was an experience like that one, almost thirty years ago, that lead to me spending so much time thinking about time, or whether my fascination with time is why I remember that day in the first place. Who knows. But I do spend a lot of time and energy grappling with time. In fact, I’ve realized that, for many years now, I’ve been putting time capsules all over the place. Except none of them are buried. I’ll explain by way of telling you about five of them.

(1) My text journal

Back in January I wrote about how I’ve been journaling regularly for many years, but this year, I’m trying to write a journal entry every single day. I haven’t achieved that yet, but trying helps me to get closer than I ever have. So far this year, I’ve written 228 entries. They’re not elaborate or really even that special; they’re just an account of what I did that day. But I expect that, years from now, the mundane will become special. That’s why I’m doing it. I know this because some of the entries I wrote years ago have taken on much greater value now. I don’t spend much time reading over them, but every now and then I’ll look back and see if there’s an entry from around this same time of year — if not the exact day — and read it. Most of the time, what I wrote is a surprise. For example, five years ago I wrote a quick entry on an October morning, recounting a dream I had the night before. Several portions of this dream are completely foreign to me now, but one has stuck, and I can clearly remember flashes of it. I know that hearing about other peoples’ dreams is especially boring, but I assume it’s a bit less terrible in written form. In any case, just this little bit will tell you a lot about me, which makes it a great time capsule in .txt form:

“At some point later I was with some other people and I began to realize that I might be a robot. My companions were examining my head and could see some wires just beneath the surface of my scalp. If my head was just at the right angle, some text on what I assume were circuit boards was visible. I don’t remember what it said. I was dismayed and worried about what implications this had for my soul, and whether I had one at all.”

(2) My audio journal

I make entries in my audio journal far less often than my text journal. A few times a year, really. There’s no rhyme or reason to when I make them. But over the last decade, the mood has struck me to record myself speaking a journal entry, rather than write it down, plenty of times. Most of them are pretty painful to listen to. The sound of one’s own voice is tough for most people to take, but add to that the fact that I’m probably more likely to record an audio entry when I’m too tired to write and you can just imagine the level of melodrama we’re talking about here. But still, surprises abound in these recordings.

The most surprising recording is actually not a journal entry. It’s a recording of a meeting of the little philosophy discussion group I had with some friends between 2007 and 2009. I had completely forgotten that I had made this recording, so listening to it — probably for the first time in seven years — was like being transported back in time. I closed my eyes and was back on the outdoor patio of the group’s favorite coffee shop, on a hot July evening, listening to my friends sharing stories and laughing together. Hearing their voices was magical, but so was hearing the space around them. The clinking of coffee cups on saucers, the pouring of beers into glasses. The cicadas. Do yourself a favor and record something like that sometime, and save it for seven years.

(3) The Web

If you write a lot for the web, then the web becomes your time capsule. Just like any other journal, no entry is likely to be all that important. But it’s interesting to be able to go back in time and read what you thought was important enough to inflict on other people. Here’s something from last year, two years ago, three years ago, four years ago, five years ago, six years ago, seven years ago, eight years ago, and so on.

(4) My photo archive

I saw a mantis the other day and took a photo of it. It turns out that mantises must be pretty common at this time of year, because I took similar photos of mantises — almost down to the exact same spot and day — last year and the year before. I discovered this because I took a look at my photo archive, which contains thousands of digital photos taken over the last thirteen years, each one named in the same way: YEAR-MONTH-DAY_TIME_NUMBER. That filename convention makes it really easy to go back and find a picture from exactly a year ago, or more, assuming one exists. I often send emails to the Newfangled team with the subject line, “This Week in Newfangled History,” that contain a series of pictures from that week in years past. They’re always chock full of surprises, laughs, embarrassment, and lots of fond memories.

I went back to look at what photos I had taken around this same time and found some pretty lovely memories. This week in 2006, I was visiting a friend in Asheville. I took a photo of him pasting a leopard he had cut out from a National Geographic magazine onto a fluorescent pink color field in his sketchbook. In 2007 — exactly nine years ago yesterday — I rode in the passenger seat of a car speeding down a long, flat road through wheat fields in Alberta, Canada, and took a picture of a massive flock of birds (very much like these murmurations) passing overhead. I was there for a wedding. In 2010, I was walking along the street outside my hotel in New York, where I was staying for a conference, when I saw two men wearing advertisements on their backs. I didn’t like this, so I took a picture. In 2011, I was sitting next to Mark’s dog, Spot, on a pontoon boat scuttling over a lake near Asheville. I took picture just as the wind picked up Spot’s ears and spread them like little wings from his head. In 2012, I took a screenshot of a video chat with a friend, who was showing me his refrigerator covered in the postcards we’d been sending each other for years. In 2013, I took a picture of my desk. I can see the mail I’d received that day, and the books I was reading, all of which I’d already forgotten about. It was nicely messy. In 2014, I went for a run early in the morning and took a (grainy) photo of the lunar eclipse that happened that day. And finally, a year ago today — at just about this very hour — I took a screenshot of my video chat with my brother, who was studying at Oxford at the time. All of this is just a click away.

(5) My sketchbooks

My sketchbooks are probably least useful as a time capsule — they’re not made for that, after all — but often they are just as emotionally illuminating as a photograph or journal entry. I have years of sketchbooks on the shelf in my home office, and opening them at random can be fascinating. Sometimes they’re inscrutable. For example, opening one from 2004 reveals a list of ten words. I have no idea why I wrote them down. They’re random now, but surely were not then. On the other hand, sometimes I can remember exactly where I was when I made a particular page, and can see the scene when I close my eyes and think back. For example, in 2003, I was visiting my parents in Michigan for Thanksgiving. One evening, we were all in the den watching some program on the history channel about early settlements, and I sat cross-legged on the couch and drew this sketch of Catal Huyuk. Not too long after that, I sat on my bed in my room back in Providence and made this memory map of the city. It was late at night, I was feeling lonely, and I was listening to music on my computer. Thirteen years have passed since then, yet — perhaps thanks to this single page in my sketchbook — I can remember it like it was yesterday.

So, those are mine. What are your time capsules?

Heavy Rotation: I must admit that when I first began playing Mr. Shadow, a song composed by artificial intelligence, I expected to write something along the lines of, “See, robots can’t make music! This sucks!” But. It turns out that this is a very strange and fascinating piece of music that traverses many genres of music recognizable to humans in a way that I am certain will influence and inspire a lot of human-made music in the very near future. By about a minute-and-a-half in to the track, I couldn’t help but think of this in the very same way I would something I heard on NPR’s First Listen that I really liked. Several times, I thought to myself, Who made this? I love this! only to remind myself that, oh, right, this was made my a computer. The other song produced by the same AI research lab, Daddy’s Car — composed in the style of The Beatles — is much less interesting, at least to me. It certainly demonstrates how a machine can be designed to imitate a certain style of music and produce something similar. But so what? Mr. Shadow is novel. It’s ugly in places. It’s like the “New Aesthetic” that you listen to. In other words, it’s very much its own thing, and that is, frankly, spooky. So yes, I expect to hear threads of it in plenty of 2017’s pop music. Just imagine a facsimile of it with Kanye boasting on top. I’ll bet that’s already in the works.

Recent Tabs: How big things are. Kindness. Just because painting is beginning for robots doesn’t mean that painting is ending for humans. Noto is one of the largest typographic projects ever undertaken.” Woah, crazy optical illusion makeup. A programmer talks about deep learning and machine learning. “The generated lines are written as if they meant something important.” How do people get new ideas? Make crappy drawings. Netflix for podcasts. Oh god. A timeline of the Earth’s average temperature. I’m like.

Written by Christopher Butler on October 10, 2016,   In Essays

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