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  • Jan Flynn

I’d Like to Try That Again, Please

If only time allowed do-overs

I’m a sucker for time travel stories

Some of my favorite books play with time as though it were elastic — from Madeleine L’Engle’s enchanting A Wrinkle In Timeto Audrey Niffenegger’s poignant The Time Traveler’s Wifeto Octavia Butler’s brilliant, harrowing Kindred, for example. Same with movies, including lighthearted adventures like Time Bandits, the Back to the Future films, and Groundhog Dayas well as grittier fare like 12 Monkeys or the Terminator series.

The concept of time as something that one could mold or shift or fold or move through in more than one direction is immensely appealing to me, and I suspect to most of us dimensionally-limited earthlings. Alas, we are stuck with a uni-directional experience. B always follows A, effect follows cause, Monday follows Sunday.

Which means that in real life, moments come and go like clouds. Maybe it works differently on different planes or in different dimensions of reality, but here on Earth, time admits no opportunities for revision, except in memory. Every day, every minute is a one-and-done. No do-overs. As Sorin Kierkegaard said,

Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.

Yes, this makes the present moment precious and sacred and all that, but honestly, it’s pretty harsh. It’s why we’re guaranteed to experience embarrassment and highly likely to sample the bitter taste of regret at some point in our lives.

Those fleeting incidents we wish we could snatch back

Aside from any major misdirections we’ve taken in life, or turning points we can see from our present perspective (and wonder if we should have taken the other direction), there are haunting little episodes — at least in my life there are — that rise to the surface from time to time because they feel unfinished, unsatisfying, or even unworthy. They are stories in need of better endings. Perhaps you have such stories too.

Here’s one of mine, from decades ago: I’m in my twenties, an actress on my way to an audition somewhere in West Hollywood. I’ve parked my car several blocks from my destination, tucking my VW Superbeetle into a slot in a residential neighborhood, because parking is a nightmare anytime in that area and it’s Friday afternoon and I’m tired of paying parking tickets. I check my hair and makeup, hope it will hold up on my trek to the casting office, and start walking.

It’s an older neighborhood, with high curbs. I step off one to cross the street and hear an odd commotion. To my left, a couple of parked cars away, is a young man around my age. He’s in a wheelchair. His handsome face contorts in frustration as he tries to get his chair over the curb. I pause, immobilized with a mixture of pity and uncertainty. As I watch, he assails the curb repeatedly, each failed attempt more painful to witness. Soon he’s sobbing and cursing. I suspect whatever landed him in that chair is both recent and permanent. He doesn’t appear to notice my presence.

Do I help him? Do I break through my barrier of self-consciousness, my fear that he’ll only be further upset by an attractive young woman seeing his distress, or my worry that my awkward attempt at rescue will be unwelcome? Do I cast aside the concern that I’m already late for my audition? Do I calmly approach him, respectfully ask what I can do, and then do it — or serenely accept his refusal and allow him his dignity?

No. I do none of those things. I hurry off to my audition, feeling bad, feeling helpless, feeling the moment slip into failure. I remember nothing about the audition or even what it was for, except that I didn’t book the job. But that struggling young man is still with me.

Time travel is hazardous

As anyone who’s at all familiar with the lore knows, messing with time is fraught with peril. There’s the butterfly effect to consider, and if you manage to avoid that, what if you accidentally prevent the birth of your grandmother? Just look at what almost happened to Marty McFly.

Time, in stories where humans change it or move through it in unorthodox ways, behaves rather like a genie. Attempts to order it result in unexpected and often catastrophic consequences. The moral is, as it so often is in the scifi realm, that human wisdom is far too frail to take on the great cosmic forces.

I get that. But what about some tiny, minor adjustments here and there? Nothing to change the outcome of a war or steer the Titanic around the iceberg or anything. Just a wee tweek. A compliment given instead of withheld, an encouraging smile instead of a preoccupied stare, a more thoughtfully chosen tone of voice?

An offer of help to a young guy having trouble with his wheelchair.

Is that so much to ask?

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