Motion picture pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière created a sensation before the turn of the last century with their actualités, or “actuality films.” These were one-minute documentaries of everyday life in Lyons, Paris and elsewhere, shot by setting up a camera on a street corner or railway platform and just letting the world pass by. Once the novelty of life-sized images moving on a screen had worn off, the Lumière brothers dispatched camera crews to Russia, Japan and the Middle East in search of new and exotic locales. Eventually, however, audiences demanded that films do what it turned out they were made for: storytelling.
"Ancient Japanese Maple" by Eric Rennie (2021)
My photograph, "Ancient Japanese Maple," is one of 55 images accepted in a juried competition (out of more than 1,000 submissions) at the A. Smith Gallery in Johnson City, TX near Austin. The exhibition, called "Botanical," runs from November 25, 2022 until January 5, 2023. My photo was taken in a pet cemetery at the Harkness Estate near New London, CT. It previously appeared last year in an exhibition at the Las Laguna Gallery in Las Lagunas, CA.
The grandfather paradox is hard to explain in a few words, but you can demonstrate it with a fading photograph and a couple of lines of dialog. Back to the Future is a feature film, after all, not a science documentary on Nova. The mantra is “show, don’t tell.” In the movie, Marty McFly saves his future father from being hit by a car and becomes the object of his future mother’s amorous intentions. The snapshot of Marty and his two older siblings that he had been carrying around in this wallet starts to fade, beginning with his brother, who is the first-born. A younger version of Doc Brown, the mad scientist who later invents the time machine that will transport Marty back to 1955, realizes that Marty has already interfered with his parents’ courtship, which is why his brother is disappearing from the picture. “Your sister will follow,” he tells Marty, “and unless you can repair the damage, you’ll be next.”
Time travel has been a staple of science fiction since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1905. However, the protagonist of Wells’ novel travelled into the future, not the past, thereby sidestepping the complications that are bound to ensue if you go monkeying around with your own family tree. Speculations about exactly what might ensue began appearing in the letters columns of pulp science fiction magazines in the late 1920s. The first story to explore the topic was Nat Schnachner’s “Ancestral Voices,” published in Astounding Tales in 1933. In Schnachner’s tale, an inventor named Emmet Penny-packer lands his time machine in the Roman city of Aquileia just as Attila the Hun’s hordes break through the city walls. In the ensuing melee, Pennypacker kills a Hun who turns out to be his own great-grandfather many times over. History is instantly reshuffled, and Pennypacker is also history, along with some 50,000 fellow descendants who disappear without a trace. Now imagine if Zemeckis had tried to make a movie out of that story in order to explore the theme of the grandfather paradox. First, there would be the expense of Attila the Hun’s hordes laying siege to Aquileia. Then, how do you show Pennybacker and 50,000 fellow descendants disappearing without trace?
In Back to the Future, Zemeckis manages to convey essentially the same idea with a single fading photograph of three siblings posing in front of a wishing well. A photograph is a perfect metaphor in this circumstance because it is inherently about time. In order to take a picture in the first place, you have to time the exposure. The image itself stops time and preserves the moment forever. This may not be so apparent if you are just posting a selfie on the Internet. But with each passing year it becomes more apparent that the moment frozen in the photograph has become a window into another time. As time goes on, the snapshot itself may begin to fade in the sunlight, quite apart from any monkeying around with the family tree.
Spoiler alert: In the end, Marty succeeds in getting his parents’ romance back on track, and the snapshot with his siblings is restored to its original condition. But everything doesn’t end exactly where it began. With help from the young Doc Brown, Marty gets the time machine powered up again, and he makes his way back to his point of departure in 1985. End of story? No, the world Marty left is not the world he returns to.
He discovers there are unintended consequences to his untimely interventions in 1955. For one thing, his nerdy father has gained confidence from his unknowing encounter with his future son, and every indication is that he has had a much more successful life. But this raises another thorny question related to the grandfather paradox. Marty may not have been erased from history, but what about the father as he remembered him growing up? And what about everybody else whose lives had been changed in large and small ways as a result of Mary’s untimely interventions? Do their original selves continue on unchanged in some parallel universe — not the least the Marty who had grown up before his time-traveling adventure transformed everything? Are there now two Martys, too sets of parents, two sets of siblings — indeed, two 1985s?
These and other potential complications have prompted many physicists to dismiss time travel as a possibility, at least the prospect of revisiting the past. It is true that time travel is theoretically achievable, according to Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s friend and colleague, Kurt Gödel, worked out the math, which demonstrated that four-dimensional spacetime could in some circumstances loop back on itself. However, you still need to contend with the second law of thermodynamics, which has the arrow of time pointing from past to future, never the other way around. And all that is before you try to grapple with what happens when you inadvertently keep your parents from getting together and then have to scramble to play matchmaker. And what happens if you fail and your own existence is erased? In such a case you presumably would never travel back to 1955 and your parents’ romance would proceed unimpeded. Try to sort that one out!
Time travel is predicated on the assumption that past and future are places you can get to from the present. Each moment exists somewhere in perpetuity. According to the more familiar linear conception of time, each moment is like a single frame of a movie spooling through a projector. However, Einstein’s old mathematics professor, Hermann Minkowski proposed that time and space did not exist as separate dimensions but rather formed a seamless four-dimensional universe he called spacetime in which past, present and future exist eternally and concurrently. Minkowski reasoned that there had never been a "place other than at a time and a time other than at a place.”
Minkowski’s block universe, as it is sometimes called, solves the grandfather paradox, since each moment of spacetime is baked in and can’t be altered. So even if you could hop from one point of spacetime to another, there is no possibility that you could step out of your time machine and do anything to threaten your own existence or otherwise screw up the course of history. This, however, begs the question of how you can go time-traveling if you aren’t actually there in any tangible sense. There is perhaps a simpler explanation for why the grandfather paradox could never twist time into a cosmic pretzel. The possibility of time travel depends on the assumption that the past is tucked away somewhere after it has happened, and the future is already waiting in the wings for its turn on stage. But what if time has no duration, and exists only in the present moment? According to this understanding, past and future have no tangible existence beyond memory and expectation. Things still change, of course, but only within the framework of an ever-changing present.
Alone among the attributes of the natural world, time has no physical characteristics. It is not directly detectable by any of the five senses. Whether we think of time running like film through a projector or as four-dimensional spacetime, we all have a sense of duration, of something moving. But apart from actual physical changes in the world around us, we’d be hard pressed to say what it is that passes when we refer to the passage of time. We can see what is happening right now, and we remember what happened before now. Those memories are like stepping-stones in the stream of time — except that there is no stream, only memories with nothing in between.
We use spatial metaphors to talking about time, since we can’t point to the thing itself. When we say the arrow of time moves in one direction only, what is actually moving? The only arrows of time we can say for certain really move are the hands of a clock, and they may be measuring nothing more than their own ticking.
In Back to the Future, Doc Brown’s time machine is installed in a souped-up DeLorean sports car powered by plutonium. When the DeLorean accelerates to exactly 88 mph, a gizmo called a “flux capacitor” kicks in, and with a blinding flash the vehicle makes the leap into another dimension. On a test run late at night at the mall, nothing is left behind but flaming tire tracks and a vanity license plate reading OUTATIME that has come loose when the DeLorean dematerializes. In the original script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the vanity license plate has a different message that hints at an altogether different understanding of what is happening. It reads: NO TIME.
"Tracks in Fog 4" by Eric Rennie
I'm looking at a photograph I took more than a year ago. When I snapped the picture, I was standing on rusty railroad tracks that ran straight down the center of the resulting photograph before disappearing into the foggy distance. The picture was taken early one morning in late fall. There are bare trees and scrubby bushes down the rocky embankments on either side of the track. The sun was starting to break through in the foreground, but the fog predominated in the middle distance. A little way further on, the tracks dissolved into silvery oblivion before they could converge on the horizon.
Looking at the picture now, it occurs to me it is a perfect representation of time. Spatial metaphors are often used to delineate time. The nearer an object, the closer to the present time, whether in the past or in future. Here objects become progressively more obscure as they recede into the distance. You might say they disappear into the mists of time.
In reality, of course, time does not move either forward or backward, at least not in the sense of an object moving through physical space. Time has no spatial direction or dimension whatsoever. If you strip away the metaphors, you are left with the thing itself, which can be measured with great precision but which essentially remains an enigma. We all have a sense of time passing — of duration — but what exactly passes? Time is not detectable by any of the physical senses, and clocks measure nothing beyond their own ticking. Time, for all practical purposes, doesn’t appear to have any tangible existence, except as an abstract measure of change.
An astronomer can look through a telescope at stars and galaxies as they existed billions of years ago, but their light can only be seen right now. The actual celestial bodies may have burned themselves out long ago. Similarly, a geologist may study rocks that were formed when our planet was new, but his hypotheses about their origins depend on what he sees right now. A paleontologist digs up bones from creatures that roamed the earth tens of millions of years ago, but his findings are based on what is in hand right now. There is evidence aplenty of things that existed before now, but the fact remains that right now is all we have to work with — and all we will ever have to work with. Right now is really all there is.
So what is it that disappears into the mist? I might vividly recall something that happened just yesterday, yet my memories of last week or decades ago are less and less distinct, much like the railroad tracks in my picture receding into the fog. But do past events recede into the mists of time, whatever that might be — or is it just the mists of memory? If the present moment is all that tangibly exists, and it has no duration in itself, then our sense of time passing must come from our recollection of previous moments. If we have no memory of prior events, every moment is sui generis. But, of course, we do remember previous moments, and we assume we are looking through a window into the past. But the memory isn’t happening in the past; it’s occurring right now.
Memory, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, is “the thread on which the beads of man are strung.” Without memory, the moments of our life follow one another in meaningless succession. Like time itself, my understanding of who I am exists only in relation to my past. Without memory there is no past and no duration, no sense of time moving forward. I am reborn from moment to moment but die just as quickly.
I gained crucial insights into the interplay of time, memory and identity as caregiver to my mother, who suffered from vascular dementia in the final years of her life.· As her memory faded, she lost not only any sense of her own past but even a firm sense of time passing. Familiar people in her life became strangers, and in the end she became a stranger to herself. I watched helplessly as her life slowly faded into the mist before disappearing altogether into oblivion.
My Grandmother, Agostina Moreno Fisk (circa. 1900)
I remember seeing a black-and-white snapshot in one of my mother’s old photo albums of an older woman I did not recognize. I believe the picture was taken in the late 1940s when my parents were living outside Washington, DC, and I was a baby. I learned much later that the woman was my mother’s birth mother. The woman’s existence was a secret kept from my siblings and me until I was 40. It was then my mother disclosed to us the shameful fact that she had been adopted as a baby by the couple I had previously taken to be my natural grandparents. Of course, social attitudes toward unwed mothers had changed markedly by the time her own children reached adulthood, and none of us felt the least stigma about our supposedly tarnished lineage. We just felt bad that my mother saw the need to keep her adoption a dark secret all those years.
The woman I had previously assumed to be my grandmother had died of congestive heart failure when my mother was only 15, so I never knew her. But I had a framed photograph of her hanging in my upstairs hall. Judging by her hairstyle and dress, the picture must have been taken around the turn of the last century. She was a Mexican-American beauty in a silk gown, standing by a lace curtain window. How had I failed to notice that this diminutive woman had somehow produced a tall, blond-haired daughter?
As it turned out, my mother’s revelation wasn’t the end of the story. She and my father had tracked down her birth mother when I was still an infant. My original grandmother had been a schoolteacher who had never married, a graduate of the University of Maine. My parents found her through the alumni office. The only information they had on the father was that he was been a sailor in the U.S. Navy during World War I. Tracking him down took a bit more detective work, which my younger sister undertook much later. She used her own DNA sample to identify him through Ancestry.com.
What she found was also a bit of a revelation. It turns out our grandfather was a very enterprising man, although not in a good way. He had twice been convicted of bigamy, and none of the four women involved was our grandmother. He did a stretch in Sing Sing after two of his wives found out about each other and turned him in. Apart from his criminal record, the only other thing we learned about him is that he once lived in the same Greenwich Village townhouse later occupied by the novelist James Baldwin.
My mother never knew about any of this, thank God. She passed away before it was possible for people routinely to uncover skeletons in their closets through DNA testing. It was enough for my mother to deal with the fact that she was a illegitimate daughter of an otherwise respectable spinster schoolteacher from Maine.
What do I think about this skeleton in my closet? The fact that I am disclosing it here might suggest that I’m not overly concerned about this blemish on my family history. You might even say it adds a certain colorful twist to a narrative that would otherwise involve a dreary fling between an unwed schoolteacher and an anonymous sailor. I do not think their indiscretion reflects badly on me, my mother or even that poor young schoolteacher who allowed herself to get carried away by her feelings for a sailor who would go on to greater glory as a bigamist.
My tangled family tree reminds me of a saying popular among born-again Christians: “God has no grandchildren.” By that they mean what matters is your immediate relationship with God the Father, not who your earthly parents or grandparents are. I can be the descendent of a saint and still be estranged from God. This case is the reverse of that. I can be the grandchild of a criminal and still be no less a child of God.
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