My birthday is coming in another month, which again reminds me that I am aging. Can’t seem to help it. It makes me wonder if I am in the great and dreadful metaphorical time, the Autumn of My Life. I also think about the future, how much of it is left for me, and how I’ve always had a bad relationship with the concept.
A while back this Scottish indie band with the great name We Were Promised Jetpacks came through town. I’ve read the Wikipedia article about them, checked the band’s Website, there’s no indication about the derivation or meaning of the name; so I am free to gloss it anyhow I choose.
I remember when I was a kid, growing up in the 1960s. This was a time of great progress in space, the time when Americans, fueled by post-war prosperity and Cold War paranoia, reached the moon. Back then, when we thought about the future, it was largely a Science Fiction and Fantasy future; there were colonies on the Moon, spaceships full of pioneers in suspended animation heading for distant galaxies; strangers landed in our strange land and spoke strange words, from ‘Gort klaatu barada nikto’ to ‘Grok.’ Our future was all about being selected by the Captain to beam down to the unknown planet ruled by an intelligent but endangered race, whose females were unaccountably beautiful and pliant and dressed in tight, shiny costumes, distinguishable from human actresses only by their oddly arched eyebrows or their ability to read minds. Our weapons would be lasers and rays, small enough to palm and point at threatening beings almost casually: if we chose we could only stun them, which meant to make them fall down painlessly and silently while we sorted things out with their leaders and made time with their females.
In short, we were promised jetpacks. I was never big on this stuff. My older brother was a huge fan of science fiction, moving from Tom Swift to Asimov to NASA with breathless fascination, boring me with details of the technologies yet to come, the worlds that needed exploring. But it’s nothing like what we got. Instead we got the Internet, we got cell phones, we got apps. Instead of celestial explorers, we have a race of people who are afraid to leave the house without a GPS or a soothing voice on their telephone telling them how to reach the Starbuck’s three blocks down the road. Instead of gazing skyward and dreaming of the vast spaces and the places we may someday reach, we spend our time staring at incessant messages on a two-inch screen, thumbing away at tiny keypads in an endless drive to send any thought worth receiving to anyone who cares. And this is our progress, we use these things to enrich our lives.
I don’t know about what kids these days imagine the future will be like. Newt Gingrich makes a campaign speech about that Moon colony, and Mitt Romney lambastes him for it and urges voters to send Newt to the Moon. Global warming is probably the most important and persistent threat to our future, but getting most Americans to believe it is harder than getting them to believe in The Big Bang. We don’t want a scientific future, we want a technology future. Technology doesn’t threaten our bedrock beliefs, and it gives us easier ways to talk to friends, quicker access to news about Angelina Jolie, more ways to entertain ourselves and to run up huge credit card debts in the process.
I’ve always been a fan of Earth. I think there’s a lot of it left to explore. I don’t want a gleaming, imaginary future, I want a happy present, here on the planet. As I age, I don’t think anything is served by focusing on things that might happen years down the line, especially since the things that really do happen are just huge disappointments. This is why I think so much about the seasons. For instance, we’ve been having a strangely warm winter. I don’t really miss the snow and ice, but in another five or six weeks, when spring sets in, will I feel I’ve been deprived of the charms of a real Midwestern winter? There is a rhythm in our cycles of seasons that comforts me and makes me appreciate today as today. Living this way I don’t feel like I age so much as I move along in the continuum of time, and anticipating a warm springtime is about as far in the future as I care to imagine.