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THE TIME MACHINE

This morning, my son told me that he and his pal Brian are planning to build a time machine so they can zap themselves back to prehistory and cavort with the dinosaurs. Should they succeed, I'm going to ask him to drop me off in my own childhood. Nothing against the Jurassic period, but it hardly seems as exciting as a world where anything is possible.

It is said that we start dying the minute we're born. Well, you needn't look any farther than two kids building a time machine to know it's true. It's not just the ability to fantasize such a venture that we lose at a horribly early age; other losses include a child's absolute faith in himself, and his absolute certainty that everything is going to turn out just as he's dreamed it.

Sure, there are disadvantages to being a kid. There are homework, household chores, Sunday school, visits to the doctor, siblings with no sense of territorial imperative, the constant demand to behave as if they are older, wiser, quieter or, in short, someone else. And on top of that, there are all those pesky rules: No, you can't bomb your baby sister with LEGO missiles . . . no, you and the neighbor kids can't play king of the roof . . . no, you can't eat leftover Halloween candy for dinner . . . .

On the whole, however, kids are pretty damned lucky. They can find a penny on the sidewalk and feel as rich as Scrooge McDuck. They can find a fossil-shaped rock and feel like Indiana Jones. They can find an anthill and feel like God.

Kids never feel guilty for eating too much or exercising too little or squandering their money on things they don't really need. They can run buck naked through the sprinkler without giving a millisecond's thought to what the neighbors might think of their chubby thighs, imperfect waistlines or moral standards. When kids are sick, everything in the world comes to a stop except Mom, the Campbell Soup Company and daytime TV. When they get mail, it's always good news: a letter from a friend, a magazine, a greeting card, a long-awaited box-top prize. They only get telephone calls from people they're happy to talk to. And their visitors rarely have any greater aim than to find a playmate or show off a new toy.

Kids can throw their dirty clothes on the floor, confident in the magical forces that will somehow return them, clean and folded, to their dresser drawers. These are much the same benevolent forces that provide most kids at birth with food, toys, money, a house and a slew of people who love them.

Kids don't have to carry wallets, purses, keys, makeup, combs or cash. They don't have to wait in line at the bank, or wait in line at the supermarket, or wait in line for anything but good stuff like movies and dodge ball and Happy Meals, where waiting in line is part of the thrill.

It's easy to disappoint a kid, but not for long. The pain of canceled plans and rainy days quickly gives way to the joys of free time, imagination and long-forgotten treasures that sifted to the bottom of the toy box.

Kids are so wonderfully unsophisticated, they're incapable of judging people by how they look, what they do for a living, or how smart or successful they are. Their sole precondition for friendship is friendliness. And if you get down on the floor with one of them for a few minutes, you'll have a blood brother for life.

To a kid, there are no unanswered questions. What they can't figure out for themselves, Mom and Dad can explain. And when Mom and Dad are stumped, there's always Grandpa, who watches Jeopardy! and therefore knows everything.

Kids never fail to see the wonder in shooting stars and the man in the moon. Yet nothing is quite so awe-inspiring as the sight of a frog hopping around right on their patio.

When adults cry, it is usually for themselves, over lives that somehow didn't turn out as expected. Kids cry for themselves, too, but only briefly, over mere moments that have gone wrong. Their deepest, most sorrowful tears are reserved for genuine disasters--like the discovery of a baby bird that never got the chance to fly.

Yet despite the sad and contradictory evidence around them, kids believe that death means falling down, getting back up and resuming play. It's not something that actually happens to people. To kids, life is forever.

And in a sense they're right. When you live and play and cry and love entirely for the moment, as kids do, there's no such thing as time. Only time machines.

When Mom and Dad are stumped, there's always Grandpa, who watches Jeopardy! and therefore knows everything.

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Michael Burkett