Welcome To The Time Machine. Next Stop: Childhood


One morning, my son told me that he and his preschool pal Brian were going to build a time machine so they could zap themselves back to prehistory and cavort with the dinosaurs.

Had they succeeded, I would have asked them to drop me off in my own childhood.

Nothing against the Jurassic period, but it hardly seems as exciting as a world where anything is possible.

It is said that we start dying the minute we're born. Well, you needn't look any further than two kids building a time machine to know it's true. It's not just the ability to fantasize such an adventure that we lose at a horribly early age; other losses include a child's absolute faith in himself and his absolute certainty that everything is going to turn out just as he's dreamed it.

Sure, there are disadvantages to being a kid. There is homework, household chores, visits to the doctor, siblings with no sense of territorial imperative, and the constant demand to behave as if they were older, wiser, quieter, or, in short, someone else.

On top of that, there are all those pesky rules: "No, you can't bomb your baby sister with G.I. Joe hand grenades ... No, you can't get out the ladder so you and the neighbor kids can play 'King of the Roof' ... No, you can't eat leftover Halloween candy for breakfast ..."

On the whole, though, kids are pretty lucky. They can find a penny on the sidewalk and feel as rich as Scrooge McDuck. They can find a fossil-shaped rock and feel like Indiana Jones. They can find an anthill and feel like God.

Kids never feel guilty for eating too much or exercising too little or squandering their money on things they don't really need. They can run buck naked through the sprinkler without giving a millisecond's thought to what the neighbors might think of their chubby thighs, imperfect waistlines, or moral standards.

When kids are sick, everything in the world comes to a stop except Mom, the Campbell Soup Co., and daytime TV.

When they get mail, it's always good news: a letter from a friend, a magazine, a greeting card, a long-awaited box-top prize. They only get telephone calls from people they're happy to talk to. And their visitors rarely have any greater aim than to find a playmate or show off a new toy.

Kids can throw their dirty clothes on the floor confident in the magical forces that will somehow return them, clean and folded, to their dresser drawers. These are much the same benevolent forces which provide most kids at birth with food, toys, money, and a houseful of people who love them.

Kids don't have to carry wallets, purses, keys, makeup, combs, identification, or cash. They don't have to wait in line at the bank, or wait in line at the supermarket, or wait in line for anything but good stuff like movies and dodge ball and Happy Meals, where waiting in line is part of the thrill.

It's easy to disappoint a kid, but not for long. The pain of canceled plans and rainy days quickly gives way to the joys of free time, imagination, and long-forgotten treasures that sifted to the bottom of the toy box.

Kids are so wonderfully unsophisticated they're incapable of judging people by how they look, what they do for a living, or how smart or successful they are. Their sole precondition for friendship is friendliness. And if you get down on the floor with them for a few minutes, you'll have a blood brother for life.

To a kid, there are no unanswered questions. What they can't figure out for themselves, Mom and Dad can explain. And when Mom and Dad are stumped, there's always Grandpa, who watches "Jeopardy!" and therefore knows everything.

Kids never fail to see the wonder in shooting stars and the man in the moon. Yet nothing is quite so awe-inspiring as the sight of a frog hopping around right on their own patio.

When adults cry, it is usually for themselves, over lives that somehow didn't turn out as expected. Kids cry for themselves, too but only briefly, over mere moments that have gone wrong. Their deepest, most sorrowful tears are reserved for genuine disasters, like the discovery of a baby bird that never got the chance to fly.

Even so, kids believe that death means falling down, getting back up, and resuming play. It's not something that actually happens to people. To kids, life is forever.

And in a sense, they're right. When you live and play and cry and love entirely for the moment, as kids do, there's no such thing as time.

Only time machines.

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