So you’ve hooked electrodes and power couplings to an old-fashioned carousel in an abandoned amusement park on the outskirts of town. Or you’ve outfitted a Harley-Davidson with a flux capacitor—a classic. Or, my personal favorite, you’re using depleted uranium to turn the underused freight elevator in your building into a time-ship. As a soon-to-be time traveler, the last thing you want is somebody telling you “Do this!” and “Don’t do that!” You’re about to become a pirate on the open waves of the ocean of time. Good for you! It’s sure to be a wonderful adventure. One no doubt filled with romance, knowledge and treasure. But here, humbly, are a few things to keep in mind.
DO go forward in time first. No matter how stable you think your time machine is, your first jump should always be into the future. It’s a mistake to visit President Lincoln on your maiden voyage. The past is loud, smelly and dangerous. And without at least one pit stop in the future, the road backwards is a million times more difficult. Imagine getting one good jump out of your device and then getting stuck in, say, 1861. You’d have to live out the rest of your life in the dark past. They didn’t even have a sun until the 1840s. Great, if you are some kind of wild history nerd. But you have no resources. You probably don’t have the right kind of money. Clothes, forget it. Even Civil War reenactors are flushed out within seconds in the past. It’s best, no matter how flushed with megalomaniacal power the creation of a time machine has made you, that you go first into the future to get all the latest updates and then start thinking about venturing into the past. The Future is Your Friend. Think of it as a great big safe house for time travelers filled with strangers who may not be thrilled to help you, but probably will point you in the right direction. After all, time traveling is no big deal there. You remember how cool you felt when you suffered under the illusion that you were the only one you knew who had the new iPhone? In the future, iPhones aren’t very cool. And time machines are a commonplace of everyday life. Like a blender or a teleporter. They’ll know how to hook you up and get you ready for your journey back in time.
DO be wary of the past. In fact, it’s probably best to avoid Going Back In Time your first few trips out. As enticing an idea as it might be to track down the Buddha or watch Jesus die on the cross, let’s work up to those, okay? Aramaic isn’t exactly going to be falling off your tongue as a beginner. And you’ll find it’s the little things that will cause the misunderstandings that will get you nailed to a cross right next to your pal Jesus. They have plenty of trees to nail you to in the past; it’s no problem to add one more crazy-talking future freak to the crucifixion party.
There are some things in the past you simply cannot prepare yourself for. The smell. The weird diseases. Everyone’s voice seems really squeaky for some reason. And people are really short. Also, this is probably the most surprising thing, it’s practically a 24/7 grab-ass in the past. Man, woman, child. You will get used to it, but it’s initially pretty strange.
DO leave a note. The key to time travel is to always let a friend know where you are. Chances are, you will be killed thousands of times in the past and have your time machine stolen a thousand more. It’s embarrassing, but it happens to us all. Your time machine itself will work against you here—it’s tough to hide a red-and-white-striped carousel in The Real Jurassic Park. Do you want to be the time-travelling equivalent of James Franco having to chew his own arm off in order to escape the boulder in the canyon in that movie? No? Well, leave a note then. This holds true whether you’re setting off on a quest to alter the catastrophic course of history—or just taking a weekend off to hang out in the Nigerian countryside in 3 BC. Always leave a note. About where you are, what you did, what you think you changed and the changes you have to make in the future. Maybe even make appointments with your other time-traveling pals for Brunch in Paris in the ’20s. If you don’t show up they’ll probably figure you’re dead or captured and will put it on their To Do List to track you down and help. Whenever they get around to it. Which brings us to…
DON’T be surprised that all your time-traveling friends are flakes. You’ll find that time travelers are world-class procrastinators. And why not, right? They’ve got all the time in the world and a million chances to get everything just right. It’s not surprising that such people would develop a leisurely sense of pace. “Oh, you have been captured by a Mongol Army? OK, I will definitely get over there after a few weeks on the beaches of Atlantis.” That kind of thing. Time travelers, although they need you to watch their backs, do not need to help you right away.
DO get killed. DON’T Get Captured! Being killed in the past is better than being captured. You know how every episode of “Dr. Who” would be greatly sped up if the Doctor simply carried a gun and refused to be taken prisoner? Being taken hostage is a generally unpleasant experience. And the problem is that even if your time-traveling friends warn you over brunch that you should not go to Ancient Rome because on this trip you will be fed to lions, you won’t listen. Instead, you’ll think, “Well, knowing that I will be more careful and make sure not to get taken prisoner.” Which will, through some overly-cautious sidesteps you make in response to this knowledge, probably lead right to your capture. And you could be captured for a while. And just because you later erase the past it doesn’t mean you will forget it, what with all the being chewed on by rats and beaten with medieval wifflebats.
Your time-traveling friends may eventually get around to helping you out of captivity, but, as discussed above, they’re most likely flakes. Who knows if they’ll even show up the same day you got captured, or if they’ll leave you in there to rot? “Oh, I thought you said August 1901! Not August 1701!” You certainly could rely on yourself to help yourself. By sending yourself back to one moment in the past 40 or 50 times you will have a pretty good posse of yourself there to handle most problems. Some time travelers are able to do this with regularity and effectiveness. How do you think this whole Occupy Wall Street thing started in the first place? But what tends to happen to time travelers over the years is that they grow more aloof—and less tied to their firmest of beliefs. When you time travel a lot, you start to see all sides of most arguments. You become a bit of a flake. And with all the time in the world, you rarely feel like doing the little things you promised yourself you would do. “I’ll get to that trap door eventually.” And then next thing you know, you’re 99 years old, on a beach getting busy with the King of France, and you have one of those Should Have Had a V-8 Head Smacking moments.
DON’T be too much of a perfectionist. Here’s something lots of time travelers do: get trapped in a situation, say at Ford’s Theatre, and think, well, I’ll make myself come back here earlier in the day and make sure that I have a weapon taped under my seat. It might take you 30 or 40 tries to get things just right. But even then it’s questionable whether even having a weapon made things easier or harder in the first place. With all the power of time travel and infinite amounts of do-overs, time travelers tend to get a little bit paranoid about every little thing. They want everything to turn out just right, with no awkward moments or embarrassing scenarios. Remember: no one really knows you in the past. They’re not going to tweet all their friends if your toga falls off in front of Caesar or whatever. You don’t need to get everything exactly right. It’s just never going to happen. Even after a million tries you’re still not going to impress that lady or dude with the perfect line. They either like you or they don’t. There are lots of fish in the sea. (This is even more true when you consider that all the people in the past will now be within reach.)
DO feel free to be. Falling in love is OK. Don’t worry about knocking up people in the past or wonder if by impregnating someone you are changing the time-space continuum. It’s a mistake to think that you’re all that important to the flow of anything. Step on a butterfly in the past and maybe it gives the chance for another butterfly to land on a flower. Things tend to work out the same way, eventually. The Yankees won the World Series 40 times the first time through this current time narrative. Time travelers have all just compromised at 27 and left it at that. You know, whatever. I was originally shocked that time travelers had allowed many of the most heinous acts of human evil to go unchanged. I mean, imagine if Hitler had been stopped. Well, it has been imagined. Millions of times over. And it doesn’t mean that World War II and the Holocaust can’t be averted. They just haven’t been yet. “Yet” is a very powerful concept to the time traveler, you’ll find. It has endless possibilities. Nothing is decided. And when they write the history books you’ll find even those are written in erasable ink.
DON’T worry about creating alternate universes or destroying the timeline. Really, don’t sweat it. No small thing you do—like, choosing the hashbrown casserole over grits at Ye Olde Historic Cracker Barrel—is going to set off a chain reaction that will unravel the present as we know it and threaten the very existence of everyone reading this article. That whole Gwyneth Paltrow misses a subway and opens up a wormhole which ruins her life thing is complete crap. Relax. You are here reading this. So, OK. If Einstein was wrong about the possibility of time travel in the first place (whether he was wrong or just flat-out lied about it for his own reasons, we may never know). He said that if you can’t travel faster than the speed of light then time travel is impossible. Well, roll over, Al. You apparently missed the whole neutrino thing. Alternative universes and broken timelines, well, let’s just say the science isn’t in. Yet. Get a hundred time travelers in a room together and you’ll have to listen to a lot of stories of how “in their experience” the past is this and not that. Getting time travelers to agree on anything is pretty pointless. They act even more entitled and righteous and professorial than elected officials.
DO take precautions. In an emergency it’s really most important to keep cool. It’s a good idea to keep an apartment in a neutral place during a peaceful time. You’ll find time travel to be exhausting, and you will need a place you know you can chillax. Time travel is also pretty addictive, so you’ll need to find a way to allow yourself enough of a rest. Food in the past is mostly disgusting and will make you pretty sick at first. There is no good coffee practically anywhere. And, if you’re a drinker, you may be prone to drunk time-dialing. Always know where you are. Always leave yourself a note. Have you ever woken up someplace and not known how you got there? Multiply that by any place in time, any where in the world. Protect yourself at all times. You never know if someone you meet is Jack the Ripper, so just assume they are. You don’t have to live your life as a time traveler in secret. There are plenty of people in the past who get that time travelers exist and will be interested in your travels. And there are many others who will want to use all the information you have for their own benefit.
DO make money. If you’re low on money, the best way to get more is to gamble. Knowing how sports events, gladiator fights or dice will fall is a big benefit. Don’t forget to sometimes lose; you’ll attract less attention that way. Think of it as the price of doing business in the past. You can also rob banks. And, if you want, give the money back down the road. They’ll never know. You can travel to Macy’s Herald Square location on Christmas and take, say, $50,000 cash from the safe. And bring it back down the road when you’re flush. Take out stock in some crappy company like Google and then sell it just before it goes belly-up. But, like, if you’re going back in time to commit armed robbery and you leave behind a giant trail of dead bodies, the more cleaning up you’re going to have to do. If you’re going back in time to be a mass-murderer, you’re wasting your precious adventure time. Time flies, literally, when you’re time traveling. And you’ll never get to do all the things you want to do if you are wasting it cleaning up after your poor decisions.
DON’T bring a friend. It’s tough to bring people with you, even ones you completely trust. Never mind that Dr. Who and Companions thing he has going. He is not the time traveler to model yourself after. I mean, celery pinned to your lapel? He attracts way too much attention. And he has seemingly infinite lives to play with as he infinitely renews himself in new hot young actor bodies. You, on the other hand, can die lots of times and be saved by your pals, but you will always have just the same one non-actor body. You will continue to get old and frail and fat while the Doctor will transform into another hot young actor. Why hasn’t Dr. Who turned into a woman? Because there would be no show; most women are too smart to get themselves into the stupid predicaments that the Doctor does. You may think it will be impressive to some friend of yours to bring them back in time to meet, I don’t know, Napoleon? But you’ll find that adding pals to your traveling party increases the danger of someone doing something stupid. Like getting drunk and taking off with your time machine. Time travel tends to be kind of a solo thing. Let your friends get their own time machines and have their own adventures. Which you can discuss over brunches in 1920’s Paris.
DO be serene about what you can change and what you can’t. Nothing that is done cannot be undone. And the world, the past and the future is waiting for you. It’s OK to feel nervous and a little overanxious. The past and even the future will ultimately be a little disappointing in some ways. And breathtaking in others. Try to enjoy yourself—but quietly, without drawing too much attention to yourself. Some people, like me, might put our poo in plastic, go to the zoo and chuck it at the monkeys. But that’s only if you really like trouble. And most people can do without trouble entirely. Time travelers are around us all the time, seeing their favorite movies in theaters and maybe just riding the Q train for kicks. If you get in trouble in the past, they might even lend you a hand. Most Americans want to meet Lincoln, for some reason. Possibly the hat. If you see him, say hello. You could warn him about the play, but who hasn’t. He’s as stubborn as any time traveler. And some people prefer to let history ride.
DON’T go looking for yourself. Also, be careful about visiting yourself in the past. You’ll find arguing with who you used to be to be an incredibly unpleasant experience. Trust me, you won’t want to listen to your time-traveling ass. You, Old You that is, may see Future You and think it’s important to stay the course so you can become a time traveler (alter it and you might go into stamp collecting instead). You can’t talk yourself out of dating certain people for the most part: the Past You will resent the Future You for interfering. It might even make Past You want to date Person You Shouldn’t Date even more. And let’s face it: Some people are just attracted to terrible people. Just because you can travel through time doesn’t mean you can control it. Some things just have to happen. Some mistakes need to be made. When the team you’re not rooting for is about to score the winning touchdown, you don’t jump on the field and tackle them. That would just make things worse. Time Travelers don’t have a Hippocratic oath, and “harm” is pretty relative, but the old adage holds true for time travelers and is generally just a good policy to have: “Don’t fuck with what you don’t understand.” There’s a certain zen quality to letting things happen. And to figuring things out for yourself. Enjoy the time it takes you, and where time takes you!
Jim Behrle tweets at @behrle for your possible amusement.