On the future, part two

23 October 2015

On Wednesday, October 21, 2015, I sat down with my ten-year-old daughter to watch the evening’s movie, which I insisted should be Back to the Future II. We had visited our local vintage movie house earlier in the year for a screening of the first film in the trilogy, but my daughter had yet to see the second. For my part, I hadn’t watched that movie since the repeated viewings of my childhood, but its significance hadn’t dimmed. In the background, I had the radio station tuned to the Cubs’ playoff game, aware that if they won, they would have a chance to fulfill Back to the Future II’s prophecy that they would take the World Series in 2015. As anyone with whom the movies have resonated, I knew the power of the opportune moment.

If I’m not already on the record stating that the original Back to the Future is a practically perfect movie, let me do that now. Its sequel is not as strong as an individual film, but still a tremendous amount of fun—and it offers the most interesting part of time travel legends, a glimpse of the future. Except, as the reality catches up with the movie, it is no longer the future. It’s now. Similarly, I was no longer watching it as a young person looking ahead. I was grown up and remembering.

When I watched this movie as a kid, seeing Marty as an old man was an aspect of the plot. Watching it in my mid-thirties, as a parent and mid-career adult, is a different, far more dismaying experience. We may not all have dreams as dramatically deferred, but we are probably lying if we don’t admit some empathy with grown-up Marty, freshly fired, slumping into a chair and trying to pick out a tune on his electric guitar with his broken hand. His entire story had been characterized by his spirit and his belief in changing his life, his future, for the better. And, yet, this is how it ends, at least in that particular timeline. Done in by his own inability to change, fading quietly away.

We may understand in the abstract that our dreams may not come true, but when the moment that makes that a reality hits, it hits hard. Growing up is not reaching a particular age or acquiring a certain status. Growing up is shifting from a comfortable expectation that things will work out one day in the future to the realization that we’re already in the future, and there’s no one to work things out but ourselves. And the subsequent realization that working out may not even be possible anymore, at least in the way you wanted.

Which may be why we believe so strongly in the future in the first place, why we insist on continuing to believe in its promise despite evidence to the contrary. What else can you do in the face of that? Broken hearts, failed careers, limited time. You have to believe the future will be better. You have believe that, somehow, you’ll manage to change it.

The same night I watched the movie, a few blocks away at Wrigley Field the Chicago Cubs lost to the New York Mets for the fourth game in a row, ending their chance at playing in the 2015 World Series. So much for movie predictions.

But—there’s always next year.

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