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Out of Time

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Several years ago, I worked as a legal assistant at a law firm. One of the attorneys I worked for mostly practiced employment law and asked me to prepare several folders for a new matter she was setting up for a client. My elation at a folder labeled “Time Travel” was quickly dashed when I realized I had transposed the words and it would actually contain information on compensating employees for travel time instead.

Time travel has been one of my favorite science fiction themes for as long as I can remember. My dad read me an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine when I was about nine years old. There’s nothing to indicate that it’s an adaptation specifically for children, although a quick comparison reveals the writing is simpler than in the original text, and while the Morlocks’ cannibalism of the Eloi repulsed and frightened me, it wasn’t enough to dampen my interest in the rest of the book.

I found and fell in love with Doctor Who when the reboot came to Netflix, and while not one of my favorite episodes, “Don’t Blink” introduced one of the series’ most quotable concepts: wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.

I think The Good Place also went in a similar direction with Jeremy Bearimy.

It’s one of those rare things where it’s both reasonable and easy to laugh at the idea of non-linear time and shrug it off because, haha, that’s not real and it definitely doesn’t affect us.

Except that sometimes it really feels like it might. I don’t mean just in the way that we think, “Wow, May already? Where has the year gone!” or “I’ve been working for 17 hours, why does the clock say it’s only been 23 minutes?!”

I think I’ve stumbled into a Past Bubble. Time still moves in a Past Bubble, but not in the way most of us perceive to be “normal,” and there are a couple of ways it does this. One is slow and steady, the way a river has sections that get much deeper and wider, and the water just practically oozes downstream. It’s progressing, just slowly. The other kind of Past Bubble is like the dangerous currents beneath a waterfall, stuck in a cycle, looping over and over again, and very difficult to break out of. Groundhog Day is a more compressed example of this, but the ones you might experience in real life are on a larger scale with whole communities stuck in the past reliving the same decade, rather than a single person reliving a single day. I’m not sure which one I’ve found, but it certainly seems like one of those.

Before I go much farther, I want to say that I’m not trashing the past. There is so much to be learned there, and there were pockets of simplicity that it’s only natural to remember with nostalgia. There are also lessons there to be learned that we can only glean with extra examination. But growth and progress are necessary to avoid stagnation, and stagnation is a real risk. Switching metaphors a bit, old houses are beautiful and worth maintaining, but they’re made even better with updated wiring and double-paned windows if you catch my drift.

I first felt the Past Bubble when we moved to southwest Missouri almost eight years ago. The little town we moved to felt very cute and quaint, with an actual town square with real, running businesses on it, a surprise treasure in an age when most town squares are empty husks, probably inhabited by feral space children ready to kill any adults they find.

But this town square was still bustling. And the nearby streets were lined with cute little houses with actual picket fences and large shade trees. Almost all the kids in the neighborhood walked to school. One of my neighbors mentioned to me that she almost never locked her door, there was no need (a risk I wasn’t going to take, but thanks), and one of the most popular things to do on a Friday or Saturday night was go to the drive in movie theater. Definitely a Past Bubble.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The drive in is a lot of fun and a great way to catch a movie. The shops on the square are all local businesses, which are good for the local economy, good for building a sense of community, and a refreshing change of scenery in a region with a serious Wal-Mart infestation. Even though we continued to lock our doors, we enjoyed the quiet and safe feeling of the neighborhood.

When we moved again to a larger town, but still nearby, things still felt a bit “stuck in the past,” but in a way that’s harder to describe. More businesses than you would expect are closed on Sundays, and it’s a challenge to find vegetarian-friendly restaurants (why does everything have bacon in it?). The “new” treadmills purchased by the gym in 2018 have the old 30-pin iPhone connectors on them, even though Apple discontinued that plug in 2012. I discussed the phenomenon with one of my coworkers when I still worked at the library. He had moved to the area after growing up in LA and later living in Oregon. We both agreed that things just felt kind of “not quite in the 21st century.”

Eventually, I began to wonder if I was imagining the Past Bubble. Maybe I had finally watched too many Futurama reruns, fallen asleep to Star Trek a few too many times, lost sight of the blurry line between fact and fiction as I reread I, Robot. Maybe I just felt like I was in the past because all my media took place in the future.

But then I got to accompany Kalen on a trip to California in 2019 (Doesn’t “2019” feel so distant as we sit here in 2022? It’s only three years but it feels like it could have been the time of dinosaurs). As we drove the relatively short distance from San Jose into San Francisco, I saw more electric cars than I had seen in the last decade combined. And many of the cars that weren’t electric were at least hybrids. I even saw a commercially produced fuel cell car that ran on hydrogen and dripped spurts of water! City streets had receptacles for recycling and compostable material alongside garbage bins, and people used them appropriately. I must have looked like such a rube when I gleefully dropped the first real life compostable plastic spoon I had ever seen into a compostable waste bin.

I felt like I had stepped into the future and it still seems like pretty strong evidence of the Past Bubble. After seeing the progress made outside of that bubble, it was a little harder to go back in. The idyllic past feels less quaint and cozy when you see the progress that can happen beyond it.

I saw new evidence of the Past Bubble the other day at the gym and I began to realize that the Past Bubble might be a further reaching phenomenon than I had initially thought. As I write this, I think about how the disparities feel looking both into and out of the Past Bubble, and I think it might have been this way in varying degrees for a long time. We just haven’t finished connecting the wibbly wobbly dots, but I suspect that nearly all of the southern portion of the United States exists in some sort of Past Bubble with varying degrees of time flow.

I had a teacher in high school who had lived in both New York and somewhere undeniably South. For the sake of the story, we’ll say it was somewhere in Georgia, but it could have been Louisiana or Alabama just as easily. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that he told our public speaking class that he had waited tables in both locations, and everyone in the South had told him to slow down, they weren’t in any kind of rush, just take it easy, and everyone up north had told him to pick up the pace, they had places to go and things to do, chop chop!

This is, undoubtedly, a little bit of an exaggeration. He was a dramatic individual, after all, but there is a bit of truth to the flavors of both of those cultures. What if the reason the South is more “slow down” isn’t because it’s always hot and muggy and nobody has the energy to move faster, but rather because even time moves more slowly there? And the North just feels like it’s moving faster by comparison.

I think even many Southerners would not argue if you say they’re still in the past. A lot of them swear the civil war isn’t over, waving the flags of a rebel state that lasted for four years and was dissolved over 150 years ago. Many of them also maintain that the US has lost some “greatness” that it once had but no longer does. If that’s not “stuck in the past,” I don’t know what is.

The Past Bubble example that I saw at the gym was a little less terrible than that and I almost lost my balance and fell off the elliptical laughing when I saw it. A news network that I would never watch by choice (but am forced to witness at the gym because of the arrangement of the cardio machines) was discussing emojis with the headline “using the wrong one can cost you big at work.” Emojis have been a regular part of smartphones and popular cultural in general for more than ten years. They even had a whole children’s movie made about them in 2017. I still maintain that using any emoji in a professional context is risky at best, but it feels like very old news that some of them might get you in trouble with your boss. Haven’t there already been multiple scandals featuring an eggplant emoji 🍆 as damning evidence? And this face 😂 isn’t expressing sadness. While it’s not an emoji, I think I should also add that “WTF” doesn’t mean “well that’s fantastic.” If this is news that might influence your career, you a) are living in the past; and b) should really consider retiring.

But this particular network is, based on political evidence, rather popular among southern states, so maybe it is news for the people of the Past Bubble. I just hope we can find a balance between the past and the future. Maybe by not making the past our primary place of residence. We’ll never get to the future if we aren’t trying to get there.

Have you ever experienced a Past Bubble? Or a Future Bubble? Or just weird timey-wimey stuff? Leave a comment!

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