Twenty Years Ago


Today I noticed this tweet by way of a blog post by SJ O’Hart that gave me pause.

Could it really be that 1997 was twenty years ago? By the bountiful bowels of Bacchus… I feel so old. In spring of that year, I was a scrawny beanpole of a high school freshman, shy around others yet a little too blathery within my circle of friends. How can part of my life simultaneously seem so recent, yet feel a whole lifetime distant?

Mise-en-scène: a suburban brick house in North Carolina. Temperature is a mild 74° Fahrenheit. Humidity is low, and the winds are pushing an unbroken layer of clouds out of the WNW. (Thank you, WUnderground.) Outside, a mockingbird sings.

Inside, a family is cleaning up after dinner. Perhaps they just finished watching Jeopardy on the tiny black-and-white TV in the kitchen. And while the parents intend to continue their CBS experience with an all-new episode of Diagnosis: Murder (spoiler: Dick Van Dyke solves the case), the teenager retires to his room.

There I find him, the eo-ego, my twenty-years-younger self. His thoughts are on… what? School? I struggle to remember what classes I might have been enrolled in for spring semester. Girls? Everything this kid knows about girls couldn’t even fill an awkward lull in the conversation. He has no plans for college, nor any particular ambition: I doubt he can seriously think farther into the future than next week.

No personal computer and no internet in 1997. Our first dial-up connection came a year later. What does he do? He seems as alien to me as I must seem to him.

If I wanted to blow his mind, I could just hand him my smartphone. If I wanted to live a life of luxury, I could tell him to invest in Apple stock. If I wanted to be a hero, I could tell him what happens on a September morning four years from now.

I do none of those things: he and I have both read enough science fiction to imagine a butterfly effect of negative consequences that any such revelation might bring. Still, I must say something.

“Y’know… The college you eventually go to has a motto: Think and Do.” No spoilers here. My 1997 self accepts college as a foregone conclusion, but it would be several more years before he recognizes that motto.

“Both are important. But if you have to choose one… choose to do.”

In the bedroom of the suburban brick home, the time traveler from 2017 vanishes in a puff of smoke, leaving a clueless, socially awkward sci-fi junkie student to wonder what to make of this cryptic message.

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