We are not trapped in amber

On Sweet Valley Diaries (my podcast1 about Francine Pascal’s delightfully dramatic, often ludicrous book series, Sweet Valley High), we’re moving on this week from one provocatively titled book to another. The last episodes handled book #56, Lost at Sea. This week, we’re pushing on to discuss book #57, Teacher Crush.

Each title is, alas, a literal description of its volume’s plot. In Lost at Sea, two series notables (both juniors at Sweet Valley High) get separated from the rest of their field trip group during a sudden, raging storm. Unfortunately, the “field trip” was on the Pacific Ocean, and “getting separated” means losing a lifeboat and washing up on Outermost Island, assumed drowned (until their inevitable rescue). In Teacher Crush, a more minor character develops a crush on her painting teacher and, not totally without reason, assumes the feelings are mutual (they are not, thank Christ). 

As to which tale is more harrowing, it’s hard to say. But there’s little point in comparing the events of the two novels. The books’ characters certainly don’t.

That’s right. The class clown and the one of the most popular girls in school were recently LOST! AT! SEA! during a science class outing, surviving by their wits on a deserted island for two days, nearly eaten by an island bear, rescued by helicopter…and not a soul in all of Sweet Valley High spares so much as an internal thought about the debacle. This is not a series known for its realism, but honestly, this development — or lack thereof — had me reeling. It was as if everybody had just forgotten the whole “lost at sea” thing ever happened.  

Of course, I should probably be used to this by now. While it’s rarely as pronounced as this, forgetting about the recent past is not the only temporal anomaly in Sweet Valley. You know those popular juniors? Well, they are going to stay juniors for the duration of this series, over 100 volumes. Events of the earliest books are sometimes recalled as having happened “a long time ago” — Steven Wakefield’s girlfriend Tricia died a long time ago, Jessica Wakefield dated Bruce Patman a long time ago. But how long ago could it have really been if it all happened during the 11th grade? How many dances and parties can one high school squeeze in to the same school year? (Apparently, over 100.) Never mind that the individual books regularly unfold over two weeks, or even an entire month. The timeline is impossible.

This phenomenon of time simultaneously moving forward and standing still is not the lone territory of Sweet Valley High, of course. The Simpsons did it, for example. The phenomenon is also a fundamental aspect of The Baby-Sitters Club series, which I find is generally a bit more familiar as a long-running juvenile series than SVH is, despite spanning roughly the same era. Over on their podcast about the books, The Baby-Sitters Club Club2, hosts Jack and Tanner have even coined a name for this temporal stand-still: Amber Theory. Just like those mosquitos that spawned an entire dinosaur theme park, the beloved characters of these stories are trapped in amber, preserved as they are and unable to break free and complete their natural life cycles.

Any series that employs this device — and so many more do — doesn’t want us to think about it. And I’ll admit, while reading volume after volume of Baby-Sitters Club as a girl, I didn’t think about it, not ever. Perhaps that’s because I only read the books for a season of my life, longer than the year the girls’ are amber-trapped in, but far shorter than the series’ original 14-year run. By contrast, I’ve been reading Sweet Valley High novels, and carefully dissecting them, since I was 22. Elizabeth Wakefield might not remember how many times she’s been kidnapped, but I certainly do.

Once you start thinking about the temporal anomaly, it’s difficult to stop. It’s unsettling. But is it so because of how bizarre and unnatural it feels for time to stand still? Or is it unsettling because of how deeply we desire to be masters of time, and how totally unable we are to make it stop, or slow down even a little bit?

I think it’s probably a bit of both. While I certainly wouldn’t want to be trapped in 11th grade, I can think of worse years of my life to relive on repeat. Like any of us, I’ve had times that I wish I could trap in amber, where I could keep making stories while none of the major details around me changed at all. And I’ve had chapters that I wished would hurry up and pass, where time seems slow in the worst way. And I feel relatively powerless to make either thing happen.

Relatively.

I have a tendency to think a lot about the future, or the past. If I want to focus on the present — not merely the present time, but the literal, present moment that I am experiencing — I often have to really work at it. But the work pays off. With a little effort, I find I can let go of my obsession with what’s next or what happened before. Ironically but wonderfully, those moments of present-ness tend to create particularly vivid memories to return to, thinking about the past, in the future.

This week, I’m in New Mexico celebrating my aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary with a significant contingent of my family. On any vacation, I have a tendency to start counting down the days and dreading the way they dwindle almost immediately. These are days that I wish I could trap in amber, so that they’d stretch and repeat until we’re ready to move on to the next series. But I’m trying not mourn the passing of days this time. I want to be present for this reunion, one that I’ve spent so much time looking forward to.

But I’m also deeply grateful that, unlike the teens of Teacher Crush, the past is available to me. Being present is great, but if we didn’t think about any story but the one we’re actively in, that present (when it is sweet) would be far less sweet. That’s true of this trip I’m currently on. What does 50 years mean if you can’t look back on them and say, yes, look at all we’ve seen together? Being reunited is wonderful, but how much more tender to remember all the times we’ve spent together in these very places, looking at these same faces. How critical, if bittersweet, to think of the people that made us but are no longer among us.

Yesterday, my dad drove us around greater Albuquerque, pointing out family houses of the past. We went by homes that my maternal grandfather built, that my mom grew up in, that my dad grew up in. We saw his elementary school and the Target that’s on the site of his former middle school. We found the house that my dad’s dad lived in when he died, where I fondly remember watching Nickelodeon before my family had cable.

I’ve seen these sites before. This time, as ever, it was bittersweet. The house on Mackland needs a new paint job; the house on Cardenas has let the lawn go brown; Grandpa’s house used to be so much bigger, didn’t it?

But still, we go and look back, figuratively and literally, and I’m glad that we can. I’m glad we can look back, and I’m glad we can move forward. I’m glad we’re not trapped in amber. Being present is great. But it’s the past and the moving forward that make the present precious.

1

Which started over a decade earlier as a blog of the same name

2

On which I was recently a guest, and vice versa!