a nickel I bought in Seattle for a couple bucks
I have five nickels from 1940, all gotten as change over the last few years when buying coffee in the morning. You pay for a bagel and as change you get this thing minted before Pearl Harbor. Before the bomb. Before rock music. It says so right on it.
My wife Jenny sees me picking through my pocket change — or through hers — looking for a penny with an attractive patina or a dime from when Frank Cloutier was still alive.
I'm not a real coin collector. For me, coins are vehicles for thinking about the mundane objects of the past. Like old music, they're intimate little windows, in the palm of your hand, on what used to be intimately in the palm of somebody else's hand.
Old movies do the same job. A character picks up a phone, pauses, and finally says something like "Bensonhurst 5472." I saw it a hundred times before I ever really asked myself what was going on there. How did you used to make a phone call, and how does it matter that it's now different?
The small stuff is ignored by history, even though that's where all the significant changes happen. Money and politicians still shuffle things around — build stuff up, knock it down. Newspapers gin up wars overseas and most people worry about their livelihoods more than anything else.
What does change in dazzlingly profound ways are the mundane details. What does your pocket change look like? What are your shoes made of? What's playing at the local theater? Where's your bank? If Native Americans living in, say, 1491 could see today's America, the ephemera of our everyday lives would lead them to conclude that the world had ended — and they would not be wrong.
Here's the point. Somebody made the mistake of telling straight people about camp — I don't know, maybe it was Susan Sontag.
In any case, when I see old movies (say, 1967 or earlier) in a theater, there's always somebody who aggressively laughs as loud as he can. A kind of projected stage laughter. Hysterical, as if this were the first movie he'd ever seen in his life. It seems meant to signal that he recognizes something campy.
The last time I witnessed this, the movie was Rear Window. Everything about it was hilarious to the guy sitting immediately behind me. The sight of the murderer smoking a cigarette alone in the dark was a particular knee-slapper.
What's so funny, you wonder? It's the past. Anything marking the film as having been made before the current instant in time makes it worthy of derision, as if stupidity were confined to an earlier phase of cosmological expansion. The reason you and I happen to exist NOW, as opposed to some moment before now, is that you and I are mind-blowingly sophisticated. We're cool — that's why the current time happens to be "now."
But consider the alternative, as a cosmologist might. The past and the future are the same stuff. Both the past and the future are absent. They exist only in the mind's eye. They are only imagined. Neither is "here." Only the present is ... well, present to us.
But there is one difference between the past and the future. Exactly one difference.
It's cause and effect. Cause and effect goes in only one direction, from the past to the future. The arrow of causation never goes the other way. If it did, there would be no difference between the past and future.
And "cause and effect" is another way of saying "information." Information flows only from the past to the future. A coffee cup is information about the past — we can't drink out of a cup made in the future. Likewise, you can't meet a person born in the future — people, such as you and me, were caused in the past. We are information about the past.
This is why you should never trust a psychic — the universe depends on his being a liar. More to the point, this is also why old movies — and old music, and old newspapers, and old coins — are the closest you'll ever come to being able to look into the future. They're not funny, they're information about the past ... which is the only information anyone will ever have.
So wipe that smile off your face and sit quietly ... even if it's The Sound of Music. Even if it's Barbarella. Possibly The Ten Commandments ...
Editor's Note: This is installment 27 of a 28-part experiment. I'm trying to post one entry to The Celestial Monochord every day (or at least FOR every day) during the month of February 2007.