Good-time capsule

It's loaded with civilization as I know it.

Time for the big switchover, the odometer-spinning finale, the New Year’s that blows the transformer! And what better way to celebrate the dawning of a new era than by burying a bunch of crap from the old era!

Everybody seems to be putting together a millennium time capsule as a way of capturing the age—the UW’s doin’ it, NASA’s doin’ it, and they’re even shoving one under Times Square. And why not? Our thousand-year period of overpopulation, deforestation, and mass consumption could only be consecrated by jamming a large Spamlike container full of junk and disposables, then entombing it under somebody else’s property as landfill.

The millennium, of course, represents the passage of 1,000 years, not simply the last century. It’s gonna take a lot more than Monica’s dirty laundry and some Pez dispensers for the next group of inhabitants to understand what our golden age represented. While the 20th century has had its share of big-time moments, Amelia’s plane, the hula hoop, Warhol, and the Spice Girls won’t make the cut. Apologies also to Boris, Fabio, Slick Willie, and Madonna—’cause you didn’t make the list, either. Instead we’re talkin’ events inspired by really old guys like Ghandi, Joan of Arc, Montezuma, Dante, and Dick Clark.

Unfortunately, when assembling a time capsule it’s difficult to capture abstract ideas; only physical items can be thrown into the mix, leaving out “big picture” concepts like Zen, the Renaissance, and the World Wrestling Federation. It’s the same reason Native Americans, rainforests, and OJ will have to be left out: lack of evidence. With this in mind, I’ve put together a small batch of items I think should be included in any cyclical collection.

First off, let’s talk about the capsule container itself: It should be durable, obviously, and representational of the period. The Aztecs built giant pyramids over their little scavenger hunts (ceremonial burial grounds, treasure hunts—same difference) and the Chinese fabricated thousands of stone warriors to protect their plunder. I’m thinking of putting ours in a giant Tupperware bowl. Either that or the Kingdome.

The first item will be a CD-ROM, explaining what this resealable, dishwasher-safe casket is all about; we’ll download the info from or AskJeeves and jam it onto a disc. Maybe include a Happy Face or the Hope Diamond as a friendly offering to who/whatever opens the crate. There should be a box of chow for the time-traveling aliens who uncover the capsule (believe me, no earthlings will be left in Y3K to pry the sucker open): Some wheat, a few bowls of instant rice (it’s gotta keep, remember), a tea bag, maybe a bottle of Dom Perignon from the original batch (1688), java (from Yemen, not Starbucks), and to top it off a bit of cocoa powder from the Inca recipe— that oughta keep ’em interested in opening some of the other hermetically sealed boxes!

No time capsule would be complete without a little reading material from the period (or at least films made from books). First step: Keep Oprah off the book selection committee. We’ll start with some Shakespeare (clich鬠but popular), a few theories from Descartes, the Communist Manifesto, and the Origin of Species (I don’t care what the Kentucky Board of Education has to say about it). I’d also suggest a copy of the New Testament, but that’s like including a copy of Return to the Blue Lagoon—the first one’s the real classic. There’s also this great poem, “Shrikrishnakirtan” by Baru Chandidas, that’s been fairly influential, as is “magamah”—rhyming prose inspired by the Koran (written by Anonymous, the same guy who wrote Primary Colors). To be fair, we might want to include a leaflet from the Crusades. Add Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack for a bit of practical advice, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, certain predictions from Nostradamus, Ulysses, and the Declaration of Independence (USA! USA!). Finally, my personal favorite, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.

We’re going to have to pilfer a few museum masterpieces: a Picasso or two, a Ming Dynasty vase, a Byzantine mosaic (and, since we’re looting, something from St. Mark’s Pala d’Oro would be nice), da Vinci’s Codex, calligraphy from Zhao Mengfu, an ottoman (the furniture, not the people), some masks from the Quimbay, and the David, if we’ve got room.

We’ll definitely need tuneage in the tub, and probably on vinyl, not 8-track. I’d suggest Beethoven’s Fifth, some Vivaldi, Mozart, Gregorian chants, a bit of Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Bob Marley, and anything by Cat Stevens, who can represent both the pop-folk genre and, with his reincarnation as Usaf Islam, the maniacal fundamentalist factions who have always felt music was the devil’s work.

The goal is to show future generations what the culture was really all about—and that means not always showing off our best side, especially when, by and large, we’re a barbaric species. Gunpowder’s a must (the Chinese invented the stuff for fireworks in 1000 AD), along with a guillotine, a Nazi oven, shackles, a baseball bat, a fork, and a copy of Mortal Kombat.

The last 10 centuries have produced some amazing discoveries and inventions: Besides ATM machines, Pop Tarts, and Viagra, we also came up with the chair, pasta, the steam engine, Bell Lab’s transistor, the magnetic needle, a blast furnace, and a cure for polio. The Wright Brothers weren’t dummies, either, nor was Henry Ford, or that E=MC2 guy. So toss in a mini Model T, a model of the Kitty Hawk, a silicon chip, and a light bulb. We might also want to add a model double helix of DNA to show off, or to show that we clone sheep. Hell, let’s throw in a moon rock while we’re at it.

Language and other forms of communication have been crucial in bringing us together over the last 1,000 years. Gutenberg’s press needs to make the shipment, along with a Chinese scroll, paper money, translations from Arabic into Latin, Bach’s standardized musical scales, a print of Dr. Strangelove, some letters from the Mongol mail system (go, Genghis!) and a Star Trek tri-corder. Though the Internet is our current obsession, so far only 2 percent of the population has computers and far less surfs the Web. Don’t worry though, Bill, you’ll make the cut—for good measure we’ll throw in an iMac (loaded with the latest version of Word).

Finally, no time capsule would be complete without a few tchotchkes—the fun stuff that folks all over the world amuse themselves with, and I’m not talkin’ about Barbie or the lava lamp: A book on tantric sex (that’s fun!), some wine, a copy of Let It Be, a condom, a sixer of Coca-Cola, the Perkins’ patent for an ice-maker (cocktails, anyone?), Ya Shah (a.k.a. chess, c. 1010), some opium, a karaoke machine, and a batch of eggs from those supermodels, just in case the capsule’s discoverers are in the mood to reproduce. . . . Damn! Sounds like a pretty good millennium night out.

See related article on Time Capsule: Message in a Bottle, a documentary on the history of time capsules that opens this week.