The time machine


I recently made the mistake of letting my son watch the Back to the Future movies. JD, who is nine, is not an easy person. If you somehow managed to cross a squirrel with a howler monkey you’d begin to get an idea of how obsessed and noisy JD can be. We had barely started on the first movie when he cried, “Pause! Pause! I have questions!”

I paused the movie.

“OK,” he began, “where did the car go for a whole minute?”

I explained that it hadn’t gone anywhere, that it had moved one minute into the future and that Marty and Doc Brown had merely caught up with it a minute later.

“I don’t understand,” JD wailed and held his cheeks. “Where was the car when it was gone?” he demanded.

Things were getting out of hand pretty quickly.

“It was right there,” I said. “But it was in the future.”

“Doing what?”

“Look,” I said, “time travel isn’t possible, not like this anyway, so just go with that.”

JD bounced on the couch in anticipation of being told to shut up.

“But 1985 is in the past,” he yelled, changing the subject. “Why do they say back to the future?”

I explained when the movie was made and their relative point of view and pressed play.

“Wait!” JD cried. “Pause! Where was the dog, whatsisname?”

“Einstein. He was in the car, dammit, didn’t you see?”

“Why’s he called Einstein?”

“Never mind,” I said and gripped the remote, “let’s watch.”

“Pause! Pause!” JD cried a few minutes later. “Why did the terrorists kill Doc?”

“He stole their plutonium to power his time machine.”

“What’s poloni—tinmium?”

Plutonium. I’ll explain later.”

“Explain now!”

“I’ll tell you later,” I said and pressed play.

A few minutes later he exploded again.

“Why is Biff an asshole in 1955?” he cried.

“What do you mean? He was an asshole in 1985. Why wouldn’t he be an asshole in 1955? And don’t say asshole.”

You do.”

“I’ve got a bank account and I’m taller than you. Can we watch the movie?”

“Is that the same Biff?”

“JD! It’s the younger Biff. It’s the same actor, the same person in real life.”

“Does he know he’s in 1955?”

“JD!”

“OK. Play.”



In the second movie he unravelled more intensely. When the old Biff went to visit the young one, JD had a meltdown.

“How can there be two of them!?” he railed.

“Well—”

“That way,” he screamed, “there can be more and more!”

He had a point. I was not about to tell him about the kind of paradoxes these movies usually glossed over, but he thought of some of them himself.

“How come Marty doesn’t know?” he cried. “He’s back in 1985, and he’s surprised that things are bad.”

JD had never been this engaged with anything. He liked Harry Potter and he loved any story that contained a zombie, but now he’d become hooked in a way I hadn’t seen before.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

He adopted a lecturing air.

“If he’s the Marty in 1985, he should know. Why’s he surprised when he gets back.”

This was precisely the sort of trouble I was hoping to avoid.

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s watch.”

When Doc got zapped into 1885, and a letter arrived, JD was near tears.

“He’s dead now,” he said quietly.

The third movie revived him but didn’t stop his questions.

“Wait!” he cried. “Are there always Indians running around in 1885? Right now?”

I didn’t quite know how to answer him. I drew a diagram showing time as an axis along which the movies moved, but this just angered JD more. At the end of the movie he was livid.

“How can Doc have children and build a time machine in ten minutes?” he demanded.

I explained the idea of having freedom in time and then I took him to bed. I was completely drained but JD was energized.

“I can never sleep again,” he declared when I said goodnight.



I awoke at five in the morning with JD standing over me.

“Will you help me today?” he asked.

“It’s five in the morning, goddammit! I’m sleeping!”

“I need to build a time machine,” he whispered. “Will you help me?”

“You need to sleep,” I said and walked him back to bed. “I need a time machine.”

When I got up two hours later he was at the kitchen counter, drawing crude diagrams of cars with flames and lightning.

“Where will we get polony?” he asked.

“What?”

“Polony,” he said again and pointed at the soda streamer he’d placed with an iPad in a neat little pile on the floor. “To put into the Mister Fewthing.”

It took me a few moments to figure out what he meant.

“You mean plutonium?” I laughed. “And it was Mr. Fusion. Besides, once you have Mister Fewthing, you don’t need a polony.”

JD ignored this.

“We’ll use the iPad for the numbers thing,” he went on, “you know, where you put the date in? Where are we going to get that thing in the back seat?”

“What thing?”

“That flux thing. The triangle.”

He followed me around the kitchen, wringing his hands.

“I’m serious,” he said.

I gave him a hug while I thought about the crazy things I’d planned to build as a kid.

“You’re obsessed,” I said. “Remember, we talked about that. Sharks. Dinosaurs. Ninjas. Remember?”

He looked at me as though it suddenly occurred to him that he might be adopted.

“It’s a Time Machine!” he said. “How can you not be obsessed?”

“Look,” I said, “I’d love one too, but time machines don’t exist. That was a movie. You cannot just build a machine and expect to travel in time.”

He picked up a spoon and tried to hit me on the head.

“Hello?” he said. “Hello? Anybody home? Think McFly! Think!”

“Don’t do that,” I said. “I am thinking.”

My head doesn’t think like yours,” he observed.

I explained how physics precluded time travel for objects with mass, no matter how their heads worked, but JD’s eyes glazed over.

“Where will I find people to help me?” he wondered and walked away.



A few days later he produced a wish list:

— Rocket shoes.

— An invisible machine.

— A time machine.

The last entry had a note in parentheses: I’ll explain later.


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