Cocktails Outside The Tardis

Those songs to me don’t exist, you know?

“So What” or Kind of Blue–

I’m not going to play that shit; those things are there.

They were done in that era,

the right hour, the right day, and it happened.

It’s over; it’s all on the record.

–Miles Davis

Last night I attended a benefit / premiere for a film written by a friend-of-a-friend. Given a choice, I’d have hunkered down and dealt with some difficult book revisions. But these were unavoidable circumstances that required both my presence and a game-face, and so I resolutely strapped on the old public persona and drove myself downtown.

Normally, most social obligations are easily survived: The trick is to understand their ritualistic context and not mistake them for communication. Social obligations are a kind of profane high mass–dependent on all parties knowing when to respond, when to stand, when to sit and, yes, when to take the wafer–because in most instances we really are breaking bread. And if there’s one thing all those Jesuits taught me, it’s how to cruise effortlessly through ceremony on undetectable autopilot.

But social obligations involving time-travel force me to disengage automatic; they make me keep my eyes on the instrumentation and improvisationally react. Put another way, a social obligation involving time-travel is a genuine bitch–faux communication that insists I remain in the moment and also be hair-trigger, like an adrenaline-flushed cast member of Who’s Line Is It Anyway? It forces me to be fully engaged in my own boredom instead of having a carefully disguised out-of-body experience in which muscle-memory passes watercress sandwiches while I’m light years away with, say, Tilda Swinton. How else to explain this? It’s like having a tooth filled with not quite enough Novocain–the constant anticipation of discomfort is as bad (or worse) as the discomfort itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself with this time-travel thing. I’m referring to social forced marches with people from one’s past who have no connection to one’s present. Archeology, but with light hors d’oeuvres. The benefit / premiere meant wading waist-deep into a cast of characters from what actually is another life–or as close to one as possible without playing the reincarnation card. And, difficult as ever, nostalgia is among the many things I don’t “do.” This, however, isn’t simply a taste call–I really don’t have access to my previous selves, and, in truth, I’d be profoundly disturbed if I could readily tap into a 13-, 21- or 35-year-old edition of myself.

The usual conceptual model we use to explain ourselves as we meander down the corridor of time is metaphoric evolution. It allows us to be as we were even as we’re changed. It’s an integration model: Nice. Comforting. Continuous. But is this most-favored model the only one? What if moving through time is, well, disruptive? What if time doesn’t slowly accrete a coral reef around us? What if time is a mutagen? Faced with time, what if we’re more reasonable versions of Goldblum’s BrundleFly, and not Tandy’s Daisy Werthan?

This is why I absolutely avoid official reunions and carefully gauge all other social gatherings for their potential reunionosity. Again, It’s not merely the need to conjure-up a one-inch deep, road-company version of Former Me–it’s that I no longer have the script.

Fittingly, I once observed Tom Baker, the actor most famous for portraying the timelord on Doctor Who in the 1970s, interacting with fans decades after his last show. He politely but very uncomfortably was wearing someone’s scarf for a photograph and, as this was happening, someone else was asking him about an obscure plot point is the eighth episode of the third season. And I understood completely: The brittle stance, the furtive look in his eyes as he pretended to remember; the layer of courtliness that was designed to disguise the desire to be somewhere–anywhere–else.

Last night, I stood there with a rictus smile, holding a drink and pretending to remember an obscure photo shoot for a magazine cover I genuinely didn’t remember, even though I’d designed it. And I must have been good, because more than one former associate from 20 years ago gave me that most horrifying of complements–Hey, man, you haven’t changed! Can you imagine? Two-decades of stasis packaged like it was a good thing.

The irony in that meeting of Tom Baker and his fans is that the Doctor doesn’t remain the same–he literally regenerates into someone else. Which is as disruptive of one’s past as it gets. And last night that conceit certainly would have come in handy–me simply shrugging and reminding my former associates that this is my sixth regeneration; that I’m no longer a mid-80s editor-in-chief. Or a ’90s-style publisher. Or a columnist. I’m the equivalent of David Tennant, the current Doctor, and not Tom Baker–and I would have loved to point out that Tom left the set years ago.

But the one thing that has remained constant throughout the years are my manners. Though you’d never guess from the snarky blather here and there across the InterWebs, my manners are sterling. (Think Hannibal Lector without all that nasty serial-killer stuff–even though I do frequently wish I could eat the rude.)  And so last night, I posed for photos and attempted to answer questions about the eighth edition in the third volume of the magazine. I even managed to maneuver around all the last names I’d forgotten.

And all the while, I kept playing with the car key in my pocket–the thing that would open the door to my own German-made TARDIS parked outside, ready to whisk me back into the present after my breathtaking escape . . .