I recently finished reading Stephen King's novel "11/22/63," which was released in 2011. I thoroughly enjoyed it -- but it's probably a wee bit too late to do a book review for the newspaper. Instead, I want to use it as a jumping-off point for something else.
In the novel, a 35-year-old high school English teacher and volunteer GED tutor goes back in time through a mysterious portal to 1958, so that he can fulfill a promise to the dying friend who discovered the portal by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Obviously, the protagonist has to make some adjustments in order to fit in to what is, for him, a strange and alien time.
One thing I like about the novel is that Stephen King treats both the present and the past fairly. He looks back at some things about the past with a misty nostalgia, for a time before cell phones and airport security screenings. But he also has his main character stop at a business where white customers are allowed to use the restrooms but there's a poison-ivy-lined path leading to an outhouse for black customers. The protagonist feels at home in the early 1960s and thinks about remaining permanently in the sleepy Texas town where he's been biding his time until Lee Harvey Oswald is within reach. But when the love of his life is tragically disfigured one of his first thoughts is to take her back through the portal to an era of advanced laser surgery.
There's a tendency to overromanticize either the past or the future, depending on your outlook or your political persuasion. Remember those misty days of yesteryear, when all children were well-behaved, there was no crime, and every family looked just like the Cleaver family from "Leave It To Beaver"? Well, maybe not. Or maybe you're like "Star Trek" creator Gene Roddenberry, who by the time of his death had made a rule prohibiting any indication of permanent strife between regular characters in the "Star Trek" universe, because he believed that in the future, we'll have progressed so far and be so well-adjusted that our relationships will all be pleasant, supportive and professional.
The truth of the matter is that every era has its successes and its failures, its moments of triumph and its moments of shame. Not every societal change is good, just as not every societal change is bad. Human nature -- including sin, for those of us in the Christian tradition -- is doggedly persistent, and every era of human history has had both its heroes and its villains. For every step forward in one area we seem to take a step backwards in some other aspect of society, culture or character.
That could be a cause for despair, but it doesn't have to be. It shouldn't be. The constant struggle to improve ourselves, our families, our communities and our world is not an easy one, and not always a successful one, but it's a struggle that keeps us alive.
As we take up that struggle, we have to be careful not to over-romanticize either the misty past or the gleaming future. Neither is as good, or as bad, as our imaginations tell us.
Nor is our present.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government.