It’s the week after Independence Day, 2010. I am 42 years old, and have been working at UMBC for seven years. Last week I defended my doctoral dissertation proposal, one of the last big steps on my path to a Ph.D. The time machine sits in a closed shipping box in a corner of my living room, here on the outskirts of Baltimore. Sharon, my wife, is undoubtedly looking forward to moving the eyesore to a closet or the basement after the big unveiling next weekend. Hopefully the heat wave will have passed by then.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 2005. I am 37 years old, and have been working at UMBC for two years. Now that the newly furnished Student Organizations Area in The Commons is open, more changes are afoot: the Student Involvement Center is moving into what had been a conference room (2B24), and the SGA office is moving into the old Student Involvement Center space (2B20). The first-ever UMBC Stress Free Zone event took place a couple of months ago; the first-ever Homecoming Bonfire is still in the planning stages. Hurricane Katrina is seven weeks in the future. I am planning to take my first class in UMBC’s doctoral program in Language, Literacy and Culture in the fall. The time machine sits in the dark in my parents’ attic in Los Angeles. Five years to go.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 2000. I am 32 years old, and have been working at the Consensus Organizing Institute, a nonprofit that runs community organizing projects, for more than four years. I live in an apartment near the University Town Center in San Diego, commute to work in Hillcrest each morning, and spend a lot of time with my girlfriend (and colleague) Sharon. My job used to involve constant travel to support our projects in other cities, but lately I’ve spent most of my time at my desk (from which I can see Sharon at hers), writing proposals and reports and helping manage the organization’s money. In national news, George W. Bush and Al Gore are campaigning to succeed President Bill Clinton; in a few weeks, Bush will name Dick Cheney as his running mate. The time machine sits in my parents’ attic in Los Angeles. Ten years to go.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 1995. I am 27 years old and unemployed. Since I quit my job as a corporate lawyer a couple of months ago, I have been living off my savings and imagining alternative careers, but still haven’t mustered much motivation to hunt for jobs. I haven’t moved out of my Los Angeles apartment yet, but by September I won’t be able to afford the rent, and will move back in with my parents for a few months. As I pack my apartment for the move, lawyers in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial will be making their closing arguments. I have never heard of the Consensus Organizing Institute, nor crossed paths with my future wife. The time machine sits in my parents’ attic. Fifteen years to go.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 1990. I am 22 years old, and working as a summer associate at a big L.A. law firm. My days are filled with legal research, my evenings with what I think of as “mandatory fun:” firm outings meant to highlight the friendliness of the place and the casual opulence of the lifestyle I could expect were I to work there after law school. Last week it was Hollywood Park for horse racing and the Hollywood Bowl for a performance by the L.A. Philharmonic. I find both the days and the nights uncomfortable and unappealing, but I’m borrowing so much money for school that I may have to work for a firm like this for at least a few years post-graduation to pay down my loans. It won’t be this firm, though; as will become evident within weeks, its finances are a mess, and by this time next year it will have closed. Early next month Iraq will invade Kuwait, eventually precipitating the Persian Gulf War. The time machine sits in the attic of my parents’ home, which is where I’m staying until I head back to Massachusetts next month. Twenty years to go.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 1985. I am 17 years old. This is the summer between my freshman and sophomore years at UCLA, and I’m spending most of my days working behind the counter at a mall shop that sells laminated plaques. When I’m not at the mall I’m generally hanging out with various combinations of my best friends from high school, trying to cram as much fun as we can into every waking hour. A couple of my friends have girlfriends now, and we all have jobs and parents to manage, so our time together tends to involve a lot of driving from place to place: visiting each other at work, giving each other rides, maybe catching a movie before meeting up with others at a bowling alley, or at a party if somebody’s parents are out of town. We’ll see Back to the Future twice this week. I’m also making occasional trips to UCLA for student government staff meetings. The time machine sits in the attic at home. Twenty-five years to go.
It’s the week after Independence Day, 1980. I am 12 years old, and I am building a time machine in my bedroom. It’s made of cardboard boxes and tape, and it will travel into the future at the rate of one day per day, its contents out of sight for the entire journey. This is my second attempt to send objects into the future; my first sits in my bedroom closet, waiting to be opened in March 2000. With my second machine I’m thinking more ambitiously, selecting objects that might be interesting to people thirty years in the future, in the year 2010. It’s a colossal span of time, and I can hardly dare to hope that the machine will survive the trip, or that I will be present at the journey’s end. The world of adults doesn’t seem to encompass the wonder I feel in connection with this project, and the future feels utterly beyond my control. My time machines are like wishes on a star. Maybe one day they’ll seem foolish and childish, even to me. But I hope not. As I seal the last box, I tape a note to the top: “Sealed July 12, 1980. To be opened July 12, 2010.” I can’t begin to imagine what that strange and distant day will bring. Thirty years to go.